Coronavirus: Trump abandons international students ban after backlash at home, abroad

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US President Donald Trump's administration Tuesday backtracked on a decision to ban international students, including those from the GCC, who only took online classes after outrage from universities and foreign governments, as the coronavirus pandemic forced universities to close campuses and suspend classroom attendance.

In a court hearing that lasted less than four minutes, a US district judge said the government decided to halt the order that would see non-immigrant students who plan on attending schools in the fall that operate entirely online removed from the US.

Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were the first two schools to publicly condemn the move and sue the US government.

The decision was announced on July 6 by the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Universities then quickly scrambled to adjust their policies and what defines “in-person” instruction.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced several universities to cancel all in-person classes for the fall semester, which has drawn the ire of US President Donald Trump.

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There are close to 1 million international students in the US, according to the Institute of International Education.

In its original statement, ICE said that visas would not be issued to students who are enrolled in schools or programs that are entirely online.

“Nor will US Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, students already in the US would be asked to leave or transfer to a school with in-person instruction “to remain in lawful status” or risk being deported.

Over, but not over

Despite the judge's announcement on Tuesday, a senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official said the Trump administration still intended to issue a regulation in the coming weeks addressing whether foreign students can remain in the country if their classes move online.

The DHS official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the details of any future regulation on this issue remain under discussion.

In particular, DHS officials are still deciding whether to treat students already in the US differently than students seeking to enter the country for the first time, according to the official.

'Hardship and confusion'

After the ban announcement, many universities voiced their opposition to the new rule and intended to head to federal courts to appeal.

Georgetown University President John DeGioia said that the move was a "reckless action" and that it created "new and unnecessary barriers for international students."

DeGioia admitted that the university was going to the federal courts and working on “a number of fronts to limit, and if possible prevent, the negative impact of this rule" on their international students.

Following Tuesday's announcement, DeGioia welcomed the about-face. "Our international students are integral members of our University community, and we will continue to advocate on their behalf whenever necessary," he said in an emailed statement to Al Arabiya English.

Like several other schools, Harvard and MIT, prior to the initial decision, determined the health risks too high to hold in-person classes for the all semester.

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The University of Miami in Florida was among 170 institutions of higher learning to support Harvard and MIT’s lawsuit.

“This new guidance from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is creating hardship and confusion among international students who are already navigating difficult decisions during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic,” a statement from the University of Miami said before Tuesday's announcement.

The University of Virginia said it was “deeply concerned” about the ban that would have restricted international students from pursuing online studies in the US.

The president and provost both noted international students as an “essential part of our identity as a University and integral members of our community.”

UVA has around 3,000 international students enrolled every year, comprising about 10 to 15 percent of its overall enrollment.

Brian Coy, UVA's Spokesperson, told Al Arabiya English that UVA had supported 19 US state attorneys general in a lawsuit to stop the federal rule. UVA "provided materials to support the complaint filed in that matter, which has been mooted by rescission of the policy. UVA academic leaders were also in the process of working with our international students to keep them in compliance with this now-rescinded rule," Coy said.

Arab and Gulf students

Saudi Arabia is the fourth-largest source of international students after China, India and South Korea, according to the Department of Homeland Security. As of January 2020, there were 368,800 Chinese students, while Indian and South Korean students registered were 194,556 and 59,421. There are close to 40,000 Saudi students currently studying in the US.

For comparison, Canada and Brazil each have just under 30,000 students in the US.

“Saudi students have been attending US colleges and universities, which are among the best in the world, for decades. That will continue to be the case going forward,” a spokesperson from the Saudi Embassy in Washington told Al Arabiya English.

In January, there were 8,090 Kuwaiti students in the US; 3,739 Egyptian; 2,718 Omani; 1,843 Emirati; 1,599 Lebanese.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, Saudi and Kuwaiti students make up two of the top four groups of the 1,170 international students from 101 countries. China and India are the top two.

“Today's decision came with plenty of joy and relief. Most of our students were under tremendous pressure due to last week's sudden and strange guidelines,” Mohammed AlRashidi, Kuwait’s Cultural Counselor and Director in the US, told Al Arabiya English.

Tuition at VCU for a non-resident of Virginia is $36,048, and another $11,035 for room and board.

Over 130 members of Congress criticized the move to bar foreign students, citing a 2018 US Chamber of Commerce report, which said international students contribute $45 billion to the US economy.

Asked if foreign states had filed complaints, appeals or requests for clarification on the recent decision, an ICE spokesperson told Al Arabiya English: "I can’t provide comment due to the pending litigation."

- With Reuters