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How a US Policy on F1 Visas Can Affect Public Health and Trade Globally
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How a US Policy on F1 Visas Can Affect Public Health and Trade Globally

With a view to ensure that classes are not scheduled online, this week, the Trump administration is considering a policy targeting nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students. The policy position is that students on these visas attending schools that operate entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States.

This myopic move has severe impact beyond the concerned students which affects trade while also raising public health concerns during a global pandemic. I outline some of the issues below:

1. When international students are forced to return to home countries, it exposes returning students to inordinate health risks during a pandemic. By sending international students back home, we will expose these kids to unnecessary risk by forcing them to travel. Forcing unnecessary travel will not contribute to alleviating the virus situation nationally or globally. Sending these students away does not resolve all our potential issues with the virus. We may even be increasing the risk of international virus transmission. It also shows a callous attitude both towards the students as well towards the situation that has increased the virus within our country making the US a global hot-spot. The following picture shows how the crew of a foreign evacuation airline take precautions to conduct emergency evacuations of people stuck in the US.

2. Using the visa situation to force international students to enroll for in-class lectures also exposes them and the rest of us to health risks. There is no way of knowing whether students with underlying health conditions would attend classes just to continue staying here even while exposing themselves to danger. Some international students will also put themselves in a position where they are more exposed to the virus unknowingly. Also, international students sometimes lack access to good health-care and many of these students may not be able to afford the associated costs. Cost alone can deter them from seeking help at the earliest opportunity and in turn, may lead to the unintentional infection of others.

3. Universities are major beneficiaries from the fees, the housing, and the employment of international students. Now, Universities have an obligation to treat them humanely and ensure that they are not treated differently from American students, especially not in a manner denying international students benefits that other students are able to get. Unfortunately, in dealing with international students, Universities should be empathetic and show regard. After all, universities directly benefit from student housing during normal times. Universities should know that many of these students lack resources including access to good health-care within the US posing potential danger to the spread of the virus within their housing communities. For students who have been forced to stay in the US and in student housing during summer, it is unclear if all Universities took the extra effort to fully sanitize international housing. Similarly, not all Universities have reduced fees and oftentimes, have not been providing additional services and such to ensure that these students are safe.

4. COVID-19 has exposed the fault line between trade and public health. Thus, when public health in one part of the world is affected, global trade is adversely impacted. In sending international students home, the US merely shuffles the virus around and adds to the virus-woes of the globe. In turn, as we force close to a million students out of the US, this will create a new set of public health challenges, which will slow parts of the global economy, thus affecting GLOBAL trade. Actions of one country cannot work to exacerbate the pandemic. And, this is exactly what will happen when these students are forced to leave in droves.

5. CNN reported that about a million international students are in danger of being deported. Most of these students tend to be Asian, Middle Eastern, or Latin American. The highest number of international students come from India and China, which is a whopping 52% of the total international students. Sending them out clearly targets essentially Asian/Brown minority students. They have longer than usual flights to return home to and flights are not operating on regular schedules so this will create a logistical nightmare. Only in the recent past have many law schools committed to incorporating race into their curriculum. Yet, only a week or so later and in the middle of the pandemic, the Government is working against minority students! I wonder if law schools – where race remains an uncomfortable discussion even for faculty members – will take this discussion to their Universities considering that engineering, management, and medical schools typically tend to have more international students.

6. Many international students afford education at good schools because their parents take loans on the assumption that they can qualify well, finish the OPT, and be trained before they can return to their home country. Going prematurely has an impact on the loans given by foreign banks. It will force many parents into debt levels which in turn will come back to haunt future recruitment for US Universities. Already the rhetoric in the US on immigration has driven students toward Canada, the UK, and Australia. Myopic policies will impact US universities long after the virus situation is over. When the government treats international students with disregard and without any concern for them or for what they represent to the future to our economy, whether they are here or return to home countries with American education, it will taint the US educational system in an indelible manner.

Fact is, many students take extraordinary efforts to secure their student status. The application process, the English language examinations, the special GRE and GMAT examinations and finally getting US visas can all require significant work. Those who stayed have been able to stay because they are contributing to this country – that is true of the engineers, the lawyers, the economists, and the other foreign talent that flows into the United States. Thus, students represent future talent that had flowed into this country – what I term as the talent capital spewed by the trade regime. For all the talk about global trade being adversely affected because of COVID, it is worth remembering that the biggest success of the World Trade Organization was the unleashing of global talent which contributed immensely to improve innovation, create the markets in India and China by successfully challenging a largely debunked wisdom that knowledge flowed from the developed to the developing world (an assumption on which World Trade Organization was built). For the government to now take extraordinary steps to give international students the non-tenable options of staying in the US by taking in-person classes even if the universities are going fully online or returning to home countries is unacceptable.

Perhaps, countries like India, South Korea, and China should challenge this policy more formally. India Today reported that already India has taken the issue up with the US. Perhaps, the WHO, from which the US is withdrawing now, should consider this as a policy that dangerously affects public health in the rest of the globe. But, most importantly, maybe the ABA and law schools should highlight the myopic nature of this proposed policy. More Universities should join the proposed lawsuit filed by Harvard and MIT.


Srividhya Ragavan is a professor of law & Faculty Director of the India Program at Texas A&M University School of Law.


Suggested citation: Srividhya Ragavan, How a US Policy on F1 Visas Can Affect Public Health and Trade Globally, JURIST – Academic Commentary, July 8, 2020,

This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, JURIST’s Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at

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