Published July 15, 2020
In the face of heavy criticism and multiple lawsuits, the U.S. government has rescinded student visa guidelines that had threatened to strip international students of their F-1 and M-1 visas if their coursework was fully online.
In deeply uncertain times, the now obsolete policy change — originally announced July 6 by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — would have added to the hardship for international students and their families during a global pandemic.
UB — with 5,500 enrolled and incoming international students — was among higher education institutions across the country that had advocated against the guidelines. On Monday, New York Attorney General Letitia James had filed a lawsuit to challenge the guidelines, with strong support from UB and SUNY, both of which had worked closely with the attorney general’s office to gather crucial information.
Many other states and universities also took legal action, and the U.S. government agreed to reverse its policy, as announced on Tuesday by a federal judge during a court hearing for a case brought by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
President Satish K. Tripathi said in a statement on Tuesday that “it was heartening to see the entire U.S. higher education community coming together on behalf of international students to effectively compel the Department of Homeland Security to rescind the policy directive.”
“Rest assured that we will continue to monitor the policy landscape for our international students,” he added. “At UB, it is our collective imperative that all of our students can achieve their educational goals and professional aspirations.”
“I am delighted that DHS has rescinded this harmful policy, allowing international students the flexibility to pursue their educational aspirations so as not to disrupt their plans and in a way that protects their health,” says John J. Wood, interim vice provost for international education. “The policy was harmful to our students and to UB. At institutions across the U.S., international students are already very worried and very anxious. Their lives were disrupted by this ICE policy.”
UB had joined with higher education institutions across the country to advocate against the ICE guidance. Efforts included working with elected officials to change the federal government’s stance, as noted in a statement that Tripathi made last week in support of UB’s international community, and again in his statement on Tuesday.
“From our founding, our international students have immeasurably enriched the University at Buffalo,” Tripathi said in Tuesday’s statement. “Their diversity of background, perspective and lived experience greatly enhances UB’s research, education and engagement mission. As always, the University at Buffalo is committed to providing all of our students with a transformative educational experience so that we can make a positive impact on our local and global communities.”
Though the ICE guidelines have been rescinded, they caused deep distress for international students and their families in already uncertain times.
Wood says students and their families had felt the impact immediately. Students who were in the U.S. for the summer, students who had returned to their home countries after the spring semester to be with their families in the midst of a pandemic, and newly accepted students who were trying to get visas all faced new uncertainties and difficult decisions.
Omer Gokcumen, associate professor of biological sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, notes that the now-defunct ICE measure was only the latest stressor for international students and scholars. It followed COVID-19-related travel restrictions in the U.S. and elsewhere, and a temporary ban on new H1-B visas for skilled workers — all of which have created a hostile environment, Gokcumen says.
“These moves have real-life consequences for many, and they send a chilling, unwelcoming message to the entire community,” he says. “As a previous international student and later as an H1B-holding postdoctoral fellow, I can attest that the international community is confused, stressed and vulnerable, especially amid the ongoing political uncertainties and the pandemic. They have little legal protection, and they are away from their families.”
“I think, fundamentally, the ICE policy made international students feel unwelcome,” says Joyce Hwang, associate professor and associate chair of architecture in the School of Architecture and Planning. “It was a terrible policy to have at a time when there is already a lot of confusion, and anxiety is high among students and faculty. Adding this layer of unwelcomeness is really detrimental to students’ well-being. I’m super glad to see that SUNY stepped up to fight against this.”
Gokcumen says that immediately after hearing about the ICE guidelines, he contacted his students and former students to let them know he would support them as much as he could. “I wanted to open a channel of communication so that they could tell me what they need,” he says.
Moving forward, many UB faculty and staff say that regardless of the circumstances, they want UB’s international community to know that the university supports international students and scholars, and that international students and scholars are a vital part of life at UB.
“International students contribute so much. They are part of the life of UB and the School of Architecture and Planning,” Hwang says. “My parents are immigrants. Many people in my family came to the U.S. to study — cousins, aunts and uncles — and excluding immigrants and international students is wrong and heartbreaking. It’s important that we say this: International students belong here, and we are fighting for you.”