ICE Restrictions on International Students a ‘Self-Inflicted Wound’

More than a million scholars face an uncertain future as the Trump administration cracks down on immigrants of any stripe.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy., and Augusta Saraiva, a former intern at Foreign Policy.
Students at Harvard University
Students at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 8. Anik Rahman/NurPhoto

After finishing his hectic first year at Harvard Medical School, Azan Virji decided to go camping at Jefferson Lake in Colorado with friends. Driving back from the trip on Monday, when they regained cellular service, Virji’s phone lit up with messages. U.S. immigration officials had just announced that international students might be forced to leave the country in the fall if their classes are only online.

“I started panicking, my heart rate went up. I started reading more about it and my heart dropped. I never saw this coming,” said Virji, an international student from Tanzania. He drove the rest of the way in near-silence. “‘America First’ is inherently un-American. And that was me finding out,” he told Foreign Policy

Virji is one of just over a million international students studying in the United States whose futures have been upended this week following the announcement by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Many view the directive as an attempt to force universities to reopen their campuses in the fall, despite America’s world-leading spikes in coronavirus cases; U.S. President Donald Trump has also vowed to cut off federal funding for primary and secondary schools that don’t reopen as the pandemic rages.

“The Trump administration is forcing U.S. colleges and universities to choose between losing all of their foreign national students or resuming in-person programming and risking the health of all of their students, faculty, staff, and other workers,” said Diane Hernandez, an immigration attorney with the law firm Hall Estill, in a statement. 

On Friday, Trump tweeted that too many universities are “about Radical Left Indoctrination,” adding that he had asked the Treasury Department to reexamine the schools’ tax-exempt status, signaling a broader attack on U.S. higher education.

Universities frantically sought to alter their plans for the fall, while students were left scrambling to figure out how the announcement will affect them. ICE suggested that students consider transferring to universities that plan to hold in-person classes in the fall to protect their immigration status. There is some flexibility for students at schools intending to adopt a hybrid model of in-person and online classes, but students must take the minimum number of online classes possible. 

On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, which announced earlier this week that all fall classes would be held online to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on campus, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government. Since then, a handful of public and private universities have joined the amicus brief to fight the new guidelines. On Friday, Dan Berger, a lawyer specializing in academic immigration, told New York Public Radio that the judge in the case will take amicus briefs until July 13 and hopes to make a decision by next Wednesday.

(Update: After more than 200 universities backed the lawsuit, the Trump administration decided to reverse the July 6 directive. It is still unclear whether the government will propose new rules regarding international students. “They may try this again. We will be ready,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey wrote on Twitter.)

“I don’t even know what medical education would look like in Tanzania,” Virji said. “I don’t have high-speed internet to do Zoom calls for four hours a day.”

The United States is the world’s top destination for international students, and higher education has long been a potent source of soft power (not to mention worth tens of billions of dollars annually in export earnings). Last year alone, nearly 270,000 new foreign students enrolled in U.S. universities, bringing the number of international students in the country close to 1.1 million, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors Report. 

“If you can affect the minds of three-quarters of a million people a year, many of whom then return to their own nations, they’re going to have a different image of the United States than if they were just looking at distant media,” said Joseph Nye, a former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He called Monday’s announcement a “self-inflicted wound.” 

With routine visa procedures suspended in most U.S. embassies worldwide due to the coronavirus pandemic, new students, as well as recent graduates, have found themselves in limbo. Another Institute of International Education report projects that around 70 percent of U.S. colleges expect at least some of their foreign students not to be able to come back in the fall. Given the persistent uncertainty in the United States, future international applicants may instead look to universities in Europe or Australia, delivering a further financial blow to American colleges, which are already feeling pinched by the coronavirus. 

Higher education serves as a force multiplier for U.S. economic and soft power. Many international students return to their home countries and rise to high-ranking positions in government and industry, said Nye. In 2019, 62 heads of state or government leaders from around the world were educated in the United States, according to a report by the U.K.-based Higher Education Policy Institute. “Not only are we educating public leaders for other countries, but each one of these foreign students is helping to educate Americans, their fellow students, about the rest of the world,” Nye added. 

The United States has long sought to capitalize on the soft power potential of its educational institutions, funding exchange programs for high school students all the way through to graduate school. Just after World War II, Arkansas Sen. William Fulbright launched what would become the world’s biggest educational exchange program, meant to attract and retain some of the globe’s top minds. More educational exchanges followed.

While a sophomore at a leading public high school in Brazil, Gustavo Coutinho took advantage of one of these opportunities in order to pursue his education abroad. The student’s academic record, combined with his impact within his local community in Rio de Janeiro, landed him a spot in the prestigious State Department-sponsored Opportunity Funds program, which prepares low-income Brazilian students to apply for some of America’s best universities. Coutinho is now a rising senior at Harvard—after turning down full scholarships at seven other top schools, including Yale, Stanford, and the University of Chicago. 

He worries the new policies will truncate “the fulfillment of a lifelong dream” by sending him back to Brazil at a time of strict travel bans.

“If the policies are not reversed, I would have to return to Brazil and attend virtual classes,” Coutinho told Foreign Policy. “Given that the U.S. has halted travel from Brazil due to the COVID-19 crisis, I will most likely not be able to come back to Harvard. This would be incredibly sad as senior spring would be the last opportunity to spend time with my classmates before graduation.”

Even at the height of the Cold War, educational exchange was seen as a key way to evangelize U.S. values. “Let us, by all means, have the maximum cultural exchange,” wrote George Kennan, the architect of the U.S. policy of Soviet containment, in 1956. One of the first Soviets to study in the United States after an agreement was signed between the two countries was Alexander Yakovlev, who later said his year of study at Columbia University in New York left a profound impact on him. Decades later, as a close advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev, Yakovlev came to be known as the architect of the perestroika and glasnost reforms that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War. 

“It took a long time for that educational exchange to pay off. But it got a huge payoff when it did,” Nye said.

Like Yakovlev, Virji wants to take back what he has learned to his home country. “My long-term goal was always to bridge the health care gap between the U.S. and Tanzania,” he said. “I remain hopeful that this is just a temporary glitch or phase that we’re going through in American history.”

Trump ran for president railing against illegal immigration. But since then, the administration has increasingly targeted immigration of all kinds. During the pandemic, the administration has taken to targeting visas and other forms of legal immigration. In June, a presidential decree extended a freeze on green cards for new immigrants, as well as certain categories of work and student visas. 

On Wednesday, Trump’s hand-picked new head of the U.S. government’s media arm, the Voice of America, announced that the agency will not extend the visas of its more than 100 foreign employees when they expire. 

Despite three years of steadily increasing restrictions on immigration of all kinds, international students were still caught off guard by Monday’s announcement. 

“I think some people felt that there was a right way to be an immigrant with this racist regime. But we’re realizing that there’s not enough ‘model minority’ that we can be to escape this,” said Pratiti Deb, a graduate student from India at the University of Chicago. “I see a lot of people complaining about ICE now, but really ICE has been terrorizing working-class immigrants for a long time under Trump.”

This article was updated Jul. 15 to reflect the administration’s reversal.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Augusta Saraiva is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @gutavsaraiva