Trump's bright idea of kicking out foreign students unless unis resume in-person classes stuns tech, science world

The last thing America needs right now is a brain drain

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Science and tech leaders, and immigration lawyers, have reacted with alarm to a Trump administration diktat that foreign university students in the US must return to their home countries if their college course is online-only mid-pandemic.

The new policy, announced on Monday by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), states that “students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States.” The policy will likely affect hundreds of thousands of students.

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many academic institutions have, for health reasons, decided against providing in-person tuition when terms restart in September. Since the virus outbreak took hold, students already enrolled in classes at US universities have been continuing their studies through online classes, and have been permitted to stay in the country under F-1 and M-1 visas. That will now change, according to ICE.

visa

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses... but not your H-1B geeks, L-1 staffers nor J-1 students

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“The US Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will US Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States,” the agency warned.

What is most striking, however, is that the policy will apply to students in the middle of their courses. “Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status or potentially face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings,” the policy stated [PDF].

So if you're a foreign student in America at a college that has gone online-only for health reasons, you now have to go home, still paying college fees, and put up with any timezone differences between you and your classmates and teachers. That's going to make the US rather unpopular with the next generation of technical learners, or push American universities into possibly unsafe decisions with regards to holding in-person lectures and tutelage.

The decision has provoked anger across multiple communities and professions. “New ICE policy regarding F-1 visa international students is horrible and will hurt the US, students, and universities,” said Andrew Ng, the former head of Google’s artificial intelligence arm, ex-chief scientist at Baidu, and today a Stanford faculty member, on Twitter.

“[It] pushes universities to offer in-person classes even if unsafe or no pedagogical benefit, or students to leave US amidst pandemic and risk inability to return.”

Brain damage

Google senior veep, and machine-learning guru, Jeff Dean was equally scathing: “This ICE action against students on F-1 visas is incredibly damaging in many ways. It hurts US competitiveness, damages our world-class universities, and, if enacted, will disrupt the scholarly study of millions of the brightest students from around the world.”

There appear to be two main drivers behind the new policy, both by the White House. First, polls ahead of this November's elections show President Trump lagging further behind Democrat challenger Joe Biden.

There are a broad number of reasons why Trump’s approval is falling: his failure to get a hold on the coronavirus pandemic and unite the nation in stemming the bio-nasty's spread; the poor state of the economy and high unemployment as a result of that bungled pandemic response; and Trump’s rejection of a recent groundswell of support for greater racial equality in the States, especially when it comes to policing.

With the election looming, Trump and his advisors have gone back to a strategy that helped him win his first term: take a strong anti-immigrant stance, and appeal to White voters. In that sense, this new policy pushes the sense that the president will keep immigration to a minimum.

Reopening

Secondly, the president is keen to persuade and pressure businesses and institutions to reopen in order to help the economy recover in time for November.

The new policy will add significant pressure to US universities to hold at least some classes in-person to prevent the deportation of students, thus providing, in the White House’s eyes, momentum toward a general reopening of the nation from lockdown. If colleges do not hold the required level of in-person classes, they will suffer a significant loss in income and reputation as foreign students are forced to quit and return home.

On Tuesday, the president pushed the reopening message again, specifically stating that he wanted schools to reopen in the fall, even as surges in virus cases risk overwhelming hospitals.

In a series of conference calls and meetings with governors, mayors, and other regional leaders at the White House that continued through the day, the president and his senior officials argued that children needed to go back to class.

“We hope that most schools are going to be open, and we don’t want people to make political statements or do it for political reasons,” Trump said.

“They think it’s going to be good for them politically so they keep the schools closed. No way. We are very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools to get them open and it’s very important. It’s very important for our country.”

Earlier, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos criticized schools over reopening. “I was disappointed frankly in schools and districts that didn’t figure out how to serve students or that just gave up and didn’t try,” she said on a conference call with governors. “A couple of hours of online school is not OK, and a choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all.” ®

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