Courtesy of Berkeley.edu
Few students will be on UC Berkeley's campus when instruction begins at the university later this month. On Friday, the state released new guidance for Berkeley and other colleges as they plan for the fall.
This article was updated on July 9, 2020 to reflect lawsuits filed by the state of California and the UC.

The state of California and the University of California will sue the federal government over a new policy forcing thousands of international students in the state to take in-person classes during the coronavirus pandemic or risk having to leave the country.

Under the new rule announced by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), international students will be required to show that they will be taking at least one in-person course during the fall semester. The University of California, the California State University, and the California Community Colleges have all emphatically opposed the change in student visa policy, stating it will hurt international students and the colleges they attend, especially those that benefit from their innovation and research. Harvard University and M.I.T. are also filing lawsuits to oppose the policy.

About 40,000 international students were enrolled at the nine campuses of the University of California in 2019. The California Community Colleges chancellor estimated that the rule could impact some 20,000 students, and the California State University estimates some 11,300 students at their campuses would be affected. 

“The Trump administration policy turns our universities into hotspots of the disease,” said Attorney General Xavier Becerra when announcing the lawsuit. “This policy isn’t just unlawful. It’s dangerous and morally reprehensible.”

Students currently in the U.S. could be subject to deportation if they take all online courses, according to the announcement. Students who are currently in their home countries will no longer be able to re-enter the U.S. unless their college certifies that some classes will be offered in-person. During the spring and summer semesters, the agency had allowed international students to take more online courses due to the Covid-19 emergency.

The change puts pressure on colleges and universities to offer at least some courses in-person in the fall or risk losing international students and their tuition. It also flies against recent announcements by universities in California and across the country to continue in the fall mostly online. During a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, CSU Chancellor Tim White said the system’s 23 campuses could go largely virtual for the entire academic year, not just the fall. The only exceptions are a limited number of hands-on courses.

Courtesy of Natalia Marques

Natalia Marques, from Brazil, is a senior at Sonoma State University on a student visa.

Natalia Marques, a senior at Sonoma State University, learned of the new policy via text from a fellow international student. Marques, who lives in an off-campus apartment, has studied economics on a student visa from Brazil since 2016 and pays roughly $20,000 a year in tuition fees.

“How can they do that? We have one month until classes start,” Marques said. “Why didn’t they tell us [at] the beginning of summer break? It was just very frustrating, and I was shocked.”

Since hearing the news, Marques has weighed her options going forward with her education. 

“We already took forever to build a life here,” Marques said. “We can’t just move and start from zero. So I don’t think [transferring] would be an option.”

If CSU cannot find a way to help her keep her visa, she said she might have to leave the country. 

“I’ll probably go back to Brazil and just continue my studies there,” she said. “But with the current administration, everything’s so unpredictable. My biggest concern is not being able to graduate.”

In an email to international students, Katie O’Brien, Sonoma State’s international student and academic programs advisor, asked students to check in on how they are feeling about the announcement. 

“While I’m afraid I don’t have any answers for you now, as this information is so new, please know that Sonoma State, the entire California State University system and beyond will be working hard to interpret just what this guidance means,” O’Brien wrote in the email. “For now, please don’t hesitate to check in, even if it’s just to let me know how you are feeling about all of this.”

All three public college systems are now reviewing their plans for the fall to see how the rule will affect their students and if campuses will be able to offer some in-person classes.

“The announcement is perplexing, given that some degree of remote instruction is necessary for colleges and universities to protect the safety and well-being of their communities and the public at large, while still allowing students to continue their studies,” University of California president Janet Napolitano said in a statement. “Challenges and uncertainty related to Covid-19 are already weighing heavily on students; now is the worst time to burden them further with anxiety.”

The change in student visa requirements adds to concerns that colleges and universities will lose a substantial portion of their income if international students do not return or new students choose not to enroll in California colleges because of Covid-19. International students make up 14.4% of students across all ten UC campuses. International students pay $42,324 a year for undergraduate tuition, more than triple what in-state residents are charged.

Brad Farnsworth, vice president for global engagement at the American Council on Education, which represents 1,700 higher-education institutions, said international students contributed close to $41 billion to the U.S. economy last year, and a decline in international student enrollment could have a big impact on the U.S. economy. 

“Any time a statement like what we saw yesterday comes out, it makes people wonder whether the United States is the right place to send their children,” said Farnsworth. “This succession of policy announcements really send a message that the United States is not really a welcoming place for anyone from a foreign country.”

Courtesy of David Elizaga

David Elizaga, a student from Spain about to graduate from California State University, Los Angeles.

David Elizaga, an international student from Spain at California State University, Los Angeles, only needs one more class to be able to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in biomedical engineering. Elizaga fears that if he leaves California and returns to Spain, his plan of entering the biomedical engineering industry will be ruined.

“We’re all human here,” he said. “I don’t think the U.S. government is going to keep everyone out from the United States. That would be something terrible to do.”

Paula Kiley, a student at California State University, Long Beach, and Marisa Martinez, a student at California State, Los Angeles, are members of the EdSource California Student Journalism Corps. EdSource reporter Ashley A. Smith also contributed to this article.

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  1. Suzi Harris 1 month ago1 month ago

    So, what’s the problem? You’re in the USA to ‘attend’ an American college or university. If you’re concerned about the virus in the USA, you can return safely to your home country and then return when this horrible virus has passed. I’m sure classes will be smaller and all precautions will be taken at the schools. Most likely, it will be safer than going out to lunch or going to the grocery. It is very important … Read More

    So, what’s the problem?

    You’re in the USA to ‘attend’ an American college or university. If you’re concerned about the virus in the USA, you can return safely to your home country and then return when this horrible virus has passed. I’m sure classes will be smaller and all precautions will be taken at the schools. Most likely, it will be safer than going out to lunch or going to the grocery. It is very important to respect the policies and rules of any country you visit. It would be the same if an American student would choose to study in your home country.

    Replies

    • Dennis 1 month ago1 month ago

      The problem is the students do not have a choice whether to attend in person classes or not - it is down to the university to make that choice. International students, apart from studying in America, also have a livelihood here. We have things like apartment leases, cars, and other personal belongings that needs more than just 10 days of "taking care of." Some students will be forced to study with abysmal time differences, poor … Read More

      The problem is the students do not have a choice whether to attend in person classes or not – it is down to the university to make that choice. International students, apart from studying in America, also have a livelihood here. We have things like apartment leases, cars, and other personal belongings that needs more than just 10 days of “taking care of.” Some students will be forced to study with abysmal time differences, poor internet connections for the Zoom lectures, and some countries like China a proper way to access Google.

      Being sent back will greatly affect their studies as they will be put in an environment that will struggle to study in. I believe most international students will prefer and will want to attend in-person classes rather being exiled back. Right now the question is that if the university will give us that option or not.

  2. Gregory Lin Lipford 1 month ago1 month ago

    This doesn’t appear to be a “change” at all, but a clarification on enforcement of existing law. The remedy is for Congress to change the law. The implication that this “force” is new is not completely honest.

  3. Julie A Jennings 1 month ago1 month ago

    After reading your story and learning about the decision, I don’t think it is a surprise given our federal government today. It sounds like the agenda. It’s a convenient way to remove foreign students without much notice. Just sayin’.

  4. el 1 month ago1 month ago

    I can only describe this announcement as malevolent. Malicious in intent and in execution. I hope the lawsuit filed by MIT and Harvard will prevail. In the meantime, I hope universities can create one or two classes that meet in person that will satisfy the letter of the rule, possibly meeting outdoors. International students are a tremendous benefit to the US in general, to our universities, and to their fellow students. The damage that is being done … Read More

    I can only describe this announcement as malevolent. Malicious in intent and in execution. I hope the lawsuit filed by MIT and Harvard will prevail.

    In the meantime, I hope universities can create one or two classes that meet in person that will satisfy the letter of the rule, possibly meeting outdoors.

    International students are a tremendous benefit to the US in general, to our universities, and to their fellow students. The damage that is being done here is substantial, and won’t just be limited to current students.