The New Trump Policy Aimed at Foreign Students Violates Us All Commentary
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The New Trump Policy Aimed at Foreign Students Violates Us All

The Trump Administration announced that foreign students would have to take in-person classes or lose their status and risk deportation. The only reason to do this is to pressure universities to hold in-person classes in the fall. How do we know? Because the administration is removing the exemption it made for the spring 2020 semester allowing visa holders to take online classes. We also know that forcing the hands of universities is the motive because on the same day that he removed the exemption, Trump tweeted “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!”. That is what this policy is all about. Trump wants to bring universities under his thumb. The Trump Administration has instrumentalized anti-intellectualism for as long as it has instrumentalized anti-immigration sentiments. These two tropes – “liberal professors are turning your children into socialists” and “immigrants are rapists and criminals” – have lurked at the edges of every speech and rally.

Why does Trump know that universities are sensitive to this late change, only weeks before the fall semester begins? Because universities have become tuition-dependent, and foreign students pay tuition at rates that are significant to schools. Revoking the exemption that permitted visa holders to take online courses is designed to strip schools of their autonomy; to deny them the ability to decide what is best, and safest, for their own communities. It undermines institutions of higher learning, crushes academic freedom, puts the lives and livelihoods of people in these institutions at risk, and complicates the ability of schools to respond to state-specific public health orders. It is pointlessly cruel to foreign students who contribute so much to our country. In short, it is a win-win for Trump and a tremendous loss to the current and future United States of America.

Universities and states must resist, and become creative and collaborative quickly. Trump may wish to force schools to choose between the money they would stand to lose with no F-1 visa holders, and the careful decisions they have already made with regard to the health and welfare of their communities, but they can and should work together to find alternatives. It is worth noting that many, foreign students left the US in March and would like to continue with their online education through at least January to avoid living in the country with the current highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world. Second, this is a temporary problem that can find temporary solutions. Schools can collaborate to share classrooms with foreign students where a student needs a course their home institution cannot provide. Third, schools can offer more externships and research courses to meet the F-1 requirement. There are ways to comply with this unnecessary policy without hurting either faculty and staff who cannot safely return to the classroom and without hurting foreign students or the universities’ bottom line. Further, they can, and should sue, and at least two states and several schools have filed suit, challenging the policy as “arbitrary and capricious.”

Jeopardizing the health of faculty should not be required to retain student visa holders, and that fact that our own federal government is forcing that choice is telling. Yes, the economy and universities stand to lose a great deal of money if foreign students leave. But remember that is the federal government that is forcing this choice. It readily exempted F-1 visa holders from the in-person requirements earlier this year. Now it is removing that exemption for the sole purpose of pressuring universities. If schools respond by complying in spite of the reasonable considerations they have already made for faculty health and welfare, universities will be serving up far-reaching damage to core democratic principles. They will be giving up on the norms of academic freedom and autonomy that are so essential to our democracy.  States, too must step in to resist as the rule offends the principles of federalism; schools should be able to make state-specific decisions based on local risk assessments and measures adopted by their state and local governments, not based on federal pressure. The rule is anti-innovation; many of the technologies that Americans rely on have been created by foreign students, immigrants, and visa holders (Zoom and Google to name just two). The rule attempts to put on universities responsibility for the potential loss of the 45 billion dollars foreign students contribute to the economy annually; a loss we cannot easily withstand at the moment. And it puts us further behind in future competitiveness, as other countries happily scoop up these students treated so poorly by our government.

The Trump administration is using foreign students to further its larger regressive agenda. But the responsibility for the losses that will inevitably accrue from is Trump’s alone, and universities should not allow themselves to bear responsibility for the consequences of this ill-conceived and capricious decision to revoke and exemption meted out so readily earlier this year. Universities and states must take a stand against these harmful bully tactics; now or never.


Dina Francesca Haynes is a professor of law and Director of the Human Rights and Immigration Law Project at New England Law. She specializes in immigration, international law, and constitutional law and has been published and quoted by Oxford University Press, CNN, The New York Times, the Harvard Law Review and many other top tier publications.


Suggested citation: Dina Francesca Haynes, The New Trump Policy Aimed at Foreign Students Violates Us All, JURIST – Academic Commentary, July 13, 2020,

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