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Making sense of visa developments in the US

The move by the U.S. government to veto online study for international students caused anxiety and distress. There was significant confusion about what this meant and if there was a way of challenging it. We investigate.

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As a top destination for international students, recent developments in the U.S. have caused confusion, distress, anxiety and frustration. A move by the government to revoke international student visas if universities offered courses exclusively online plunged the future of over one million students into doubt. Many institutions had already made the move to offer programmes online with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

U.S. announces the study ban

The announcement had been made by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, under the auspices of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, and applied to international students currently in the U.S. and those planning to commence study in the autumn of 2020. The change to legislation was applied to all institutions offering online tuition, regardless of whether students had physical access to campus. In a further blow, the amendments meant that even in circumstances where universities offered in-person tuition, if this model changed at any time during the academic year, students would be required to leave the U.S. or find alternate means to maintain their non-immigrant visa status.

 

The move threatened to derail the plans of innumerable international students, potentially preventing them from completing their studies and being liable for costs such as accommodation, rental leases and tuition fees. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that a significant number of students, 90 percent according to an Institute for International Education survey, chose to remain in the U.S. after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The decision had been described as both ‘mean spirited’, ‘reckless’ and ‘cruel’, by politicians, commentators and universities alike.

Institutions react to the study ban

With international students contributing intellectually, culturally and financially to the U.S., institutions immediately raised their concerns and began to develop a strategy to address the issue and protect students. Supported by civil society, state governments and prominent companies, two of the most prominent universities in the country, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) signalled their intent to institute legal action against the government to have the ban rescinded and blocked, filing a federal lawsuit.

In addition, over 200 institutions had lent their support to the lawsuit by filing briefs or had begun to litigate themselves, including the University of California system. Critically, students had added their voices to the court filing and provided corroborating evidence as to the negative effects the government ban would cause.

Resolution

Here’s where things get interesting. Less than a week after the announcement the U.S. government repealed its proposed amendment. This came to light during a court hearing related to the lawsuit brought by Harvard and MIT. The judge revealed that an agreement had been reached which reinstated the previous guidelines and qualifying criteria, that had acknowledged the effect of the coronavirus pandemic. International students breathed a collective sigh of relief having been holding their breath. Learning was back on and it could happen online.

To keep up to date with any developments and breaking news, make sure you check out our latest news page.

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