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Rescinded ICE Policy Could Have Chilling Effect On Foreign Student Enrollment

Courtesy of Anouk Olthof

College education will look remarkably different this fall. Many schools will try to blend online and in-person classes to avoid the spread of COVID-19. The federal government introduced — and quickly rescinded — a directive that had international students wondering if they would be able to continue their studies at U.S. colleges at all.  

Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced last week that international students who plan to take only online courses in the fall would not be able to stay in the U.S. 

Seventeen states, including Connecticut and New York, tried to block the move in federal court. They say it would have forced international students to choose between their health and their U.S. education. 

The federal government backed down. But the damage might already be done for some students who decided not to stay in the U.S. because of anti-immigrant policies. 

“I think a lot of people are probably feeling that they are punished for something they have no control over and affecting their futures pretty drastically.” 

Anouk Olthof is from the Netherlands. She’s a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut, studying the role that genetics plays in nervous system diseases like ALS. She’s one of about a million international students who enroll at American universities every year. 

Anouk says when she graduates from UConn, she will not stay in the U.S. for her post-doctoral internship.

“I contemplated doing one either in the U.S. or going back to Europe.” 

Anouk decided back in February, before the coronavirus pandemic took off, that the political climate in the U.S. was not favorable for international students like herself. So she plans to complete her post-doctoral work in Denmark. 

“I think the opinion towards the international students was getting more negative. And so I felt that it may not have been in my benefit to stay in the U.S..” 

That’s a far cry from what Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont wants. Earlier this week, he said he wishes he could attach each student diploma with a visa for them to live and work in his state. 

“We are proud to have you here in Connecticut.”

The good news for Lamont and international students is that with the ICE order rescinded, they can study at U.S. colleges again, even if it’s just online. 

The bad news is the damage of the order might have already been done.

“This is not only misguided, thoughtless and abusive in terms of who we are as a country, but it is actually an act that threatens our health even further.”

Carl Lejuez is the provost for academic affairs at the University of Connecticut, where plans are underway for a hybrid of remote and in-person classes. Lejuez says international students who wanted to stay — at all costs — would have been forced to come back to campus, and possibly contribute to the spread of the virus. Others might have boarded planes and left with the virus.

“It certainly does have an impact on our ability to get our curriculum together.”

Lejuez says his top concern is the more than 2,000 international UConn students who feel anxious and uncertain about whether they are really wanted here. 

“International students bring so much. They make the educational experience better, they make the cultural experience better, they are part of what makes all of our students more culturally competent and prepared for a global world.”

Schools are already anticipating declined enrollment this year due to the pandemic. Students and families are choosing to take gap years until the virus is more under control.

Schools often depend on the tuition paid by international students to provide aid packages to American students. And there could be long-term economic effects if international students are anxious about staying.

“We're actually shooting ourselves in the foot — in so many ways.”

Millicent Clarke, an immigration attorney on Long Island, says many international students who come to the U.S. ultimately become citizens, and work for American companies. 

“The United States needs STEM students and a lot of the STEM students come from outside the United States.” 

But for Anouk it’s too late. 

“I think international students are just kind of pets that are being played with in that sense where we don't have any control over this.” 

There is still over a month before universities and colleges will start class. It’s not clear whether ICE plans to issue any further restrictions on international students. 

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