Panic Over a Promised Order

(Photo by Robert Gramner on Unsplash)

The virtual ink wasn’t even dry on President Trump’s tweet announcing he would suspend immigration in the midst of the pandemic when the messages started to flood in.

Will student visas be revoked, one student asked. I went home to China when the coronavirus began to spread, another wrote — can I come back? What about OPT, a third wanted to know.

This is how things have gone for the past couple of years: President Trump says something — online, at a rally — about cutting off pathways into the U.S., and I’m swamped with panicky DMs and emails. I suspect many of you are, too.

The executive order the president signed a few days later, on Wednesday, turned out to be a nothingburger, at least for international ed. It didn’t affect international students or others seeking nonimmigrant visas. It didn’t affect changes of status for current students or applications for OPT. It didn’t affect graduates hoping for coveted H1-Bs or postdocs being hired for research or teaching positions. In the end, its scope was pretty much limited to people outside the country applying for green cards over the next 60 days — which is kind of a moot point with the coronavirus shuttering embassies and bringing visa processing to a standstill.

This isn’t the first time President Trump or others in his administration have intimated sweeping action in the offing that ended up being more modest than billed. Comprehensive immigration reform has yet to happen. A total prohibition on Chinese students was shot down. Changes to OPT, the postgraduate work program, have been on the policymaking agenda for most of the Trump years but no new regulations have been issued.

But that doesn’t make students’ anxiety any less real. After all, the travel ban was enacted, albeit in watered-down form. Some STEM students from China now face tougher vetting. The administration ended DACA, the program protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation — the U.S. Supreme Court could rule any day on whether that was lawful.

In short, students are habituated to expect if not the worst, then something bad. The tweets and the speeches might just be a bark, but they fear the bite. In the end, is there much difference?

Finally — and I may be, in journalist parlance, burying the lead — there is a provision students and colleges ought to watch in President Trump’s proclamation: Section 6 orders a 30-day review of nonimmigrant visa programs with recommendations of changes to “stimulate the United States economy and ensure the prioritization, hiring, and employment of United States workers.” Stay tuned.

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Grounding Study Abroad

The Fulbright Program has notified 2020–21 scholars that the start date for international travel will be delayed from the fall until January 1, 2021 — at least. Start dates are contingent on travel and health warnings for both the destination country and the U.S. being at “a level that permits exchanges to take place,” a letter sent to U.S. awardees last week stated. Officials said they were making the call now to give Fulbright recipients, and their home and host institutions, time to make other plans for the fall. But if restrictions remain in place that prevent travel throughout next year, this cohort of Fulbrighters may be out of luck — program policy does not allow grants to be postponed until the following academic year.

“Today was a tough day,” one recipient told me of getting the news.

This is disappointing to incoming scholars, to be sure, but I think the announcement signals something bigger: There’s no longer much of a debate about IF study-abroad programs are canceled for the fall semester, it’s a matter of WHEN they will be called off. No, Fulbright doesn’t set education-abroad policy, but when the premier U.S. government-sponsored international-exchange program delays travel, it sends a very loud signal — to colleges, to providers, and, especially, to students and parents.

No Aid for International Students

A recently passed coronavirus-relief bill allocates nearly $6 billion in emergency student aid, but international and undocumented students aren’t eligible for the assistance, according to guidance from the U.S. Department of Education. Only students who qualify for Title IV federal financial aid can receive the emergency funds, the guidelines state — language that wasn’t included in the legislation itself.

In a statement, the department said, “The CARES Act makes clear that this taxpayer-funded relief fund should be targeted to U.S. citizens, which is consistently echoed throughout the law.”

The upshot: As the outbreak spread and campuses closed down, many international students opted to remain in the U.S. But with travel restrictions likely stretching into summer, many of them are incurring unexpected expenses, and limitations on off-campus work means they have little means to offset those costs. (The New York Times ran a piece on stranded international students this weekend.) The financial burdens on international and undocumented students are real — and it will fall to colleges to help shoulder those needs.

What is your college doing to support international students — not just financially but emotionally — in these uncertain months? I’m collecting examples of innovative programs and practices. Shoot me an email at

A COVID Agenda

NAFSA has released a detailed list of proposed legislative and policy changes to help international education weather the coronavirus crisis, among them:

  • Direct more than $46 billion in aid to students and colleges, with the flexibility to support study-abroad and international offices
  • Ensure that international students and scholars can return quickly to the U.S. when in-person classes resume by waiving in-person visa interviews and instituting a nimble process at ports of entry
  • Postpone all non-COVID-19 rulemaking affecting international students
  • Create scholarships for international students studying responses to and treatments for global pandemics like the coronavirus
  • Support virtual exchanges and study-abroad capacity building.

The international-education association has a town hall on policy and advocacy in the time of COVID-19 this Wednesday. There’s more information here.

Around the Globe

The Office of Management and Budget has given final approval to an expansion of colleges’ foreign gift and contract reporting requirements.

The Supreme Court accepted a brief arguing that the more than 27,000 Dreamers who work in health care are critical in responding to the pandemic. Does this provide a clue to how the justices might rule on DACA?

International students are not eligible for a generous student-aid plan proposed by the Canadian government. But it did lift 20-hour-a-week work restrictions on students from abroad in essential fields.

Sweden has shut down the last of its Confucius Institutes, closing the Chinese-government-funded language and cultural centers as relations between the two countries deteriorate.

A conspiracy theory links a Harvard professor arrested for concealing his ties to China to a fake story about the coronavirus’ origin.

Americans increasingly have negative views of China — and that includes young people, who were previously more likely to see China in a positive light.

Universities in New Zealand and Australia lead a global ranking of institutions’ social and economic impact.

This piece, on Harvard’s long engagement with China and the risks of self-censorship, is worth a read.

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And Finally …

Every so often, one corner of higher ed or another is roiled by an academic publishing scandal. But in one of the stranger cases, a biology journal recently had to retract a paper that linked the proliferation of feral cats on some Chinese campuses to the proportion of female students. Its title: “Where there are girls, there are cats.”

’Til next week — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.