Japanese nationals studying in the United States were put at ease Wednesday after the U.S. immigration agency recanted a directive that would have forced thousands of international students to leave the country or transfer to different institutions if their schools only offered courses online this fall.
The stunning turnaround was announced at the beginning of a court session Tuesday in Boston, in which Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the federal government over the decree, AP reported. More than 200 universities rallied around the two institutions by signing court briefs.
The news was a huge relief for Japanese students in the U.S. like Hikaru Yamagishi, a 30-year-old from Tokyo studying for a Ph.D. in political science at Yale University.
She said although she knew the rule would be challenged in court, the series of developments was “undeniably anxiety-inducing,” especially because she was surprised the immigration authorities could challenge international students’ legal status with a single directive that could scrap their academic and career plans.
“We felt like a rug was pulled out from under us,” said Yamagishi. “A lot of us were considering our future career plans based on how precarious or accommodating the U.S. immigration policy would be going forward. And a lot of us shared concerns and we were watching the news very closely, and we were relieved.”
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement rule issued July 6 stated that the State Department would not issue visas and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection would not allow international students to enter the country if their schools were to be completely online this fall.
For students already inside the U.S., they needed to either transfer to institutions that offered face-to-face instruction or leave the country.
The latest announcement has assuaged anxieties and frustrations for many international students for now. The edict was seen as a political tool by the Trump administration to apply pressure on higher education institutions — many of which are opting for online courses in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic — to reinstate in-person teaching ahead of November’s presidential election. The administration, though, is reportedly now considering targeting only new students with the restriction.
Universities such as Harvard and Princeton University will offer either all or a majority of classes online in the fall even though they are allowing students to return to their campuses, in a limited capacity to reduce the coronavirus infection risk.
More than 1 million students from abroad studied in the U.S. in the 2018 to 2019 academic year, of which 18,105 were from Japan, according to the Institute of International Education.
The policy’s consequences could have been devastating to higher education institutions already hit hard by the coronavirus by causing a decline in revenue as well.
International students in U.S. colleges or universities contributed nearly $41 billion to the U.S. economy and supported 458,290 jobs during the 2018 to 2019 academic year, according to the nonprofit NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
“Today’s decision is a victory for campuses and communities across the nation,” said Esther D. Brimmer, the organization’s executive director and CEO, in a press release. “The July 6 guidance … put university administrators in the position of weighing the deportation of valued members of their campus community against the public health risks of holding in-person classes. We are heartened to see the guidance put to rest.”
Ryosuke Takashima, a 23-year-old engineering student at Harvard University in Massachusetts, was relieved by the university’s swift action to reassure international students following publication of the ICE rule.
Seeing his fellow international students as well as domestic students signing a petition demanding the rule be dropped, he said he felt something resembling the resilience of American society.
“I was able to see how society turned things around dramatically in a week after people raised their voices over something they felt was unjust,” Takashima said.