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Tens of thousands of international students in California no longer have to worry about being deported if their colleges and universities are closed this fall and only offering distance learning.

The Trump administration rescinded a policy Tuesday that would have forced international students to take in-person classes in the fall or risk deportation.

Courtesy of Jayden Choi

Jayden Choi is a Long Beach State University film student from South Korea.

Jayden Choi, a senior at Long Beach State University who is from South Korea, was relieved that his studies in film and electronic arts will no longer be cut short.

“I was happy,” Choi said about the rescinded policy. “I don’t have to worry anymore about having to leave the country and abandon everything I have.”

When Choi first learned he might have to leave the United States, he immediately called his parents.

“[My parents] were saying that maybe it’s a sign that I should try in a different country,” Choi said. “I actually lived in Italy before I came to the U.S. for a little less than a year. So my parents thought I might, it might be a good time for me to return to Italy and continue my career there.”

Another possibility that Choi and his parents weighed was returning to South Korea, but that would mean putting a halt to his film career and joining the South Korean military for up to a year and a half.

“So pretty much losing two years of my career and my life in my twenties,” Choi said. “Could have been a huge waste. So I definitely was scared.”

College administrators also applauded Tuesday’s decision, with some caution that it is still unclear if there will still be some changes and whether new students will be allowed into the country to study in colleges that are only offering online courses.

“This sudden reversal by ICE is a win for common sense and for public health. Revoking the visas of international students in the midst of a pandemic would have put students’ futures, their communities’ health and the U.S. economy in further jeopardy,” wrote University of California Board of Regents Chair John A. Pérez and President Janet Napolitano in a joint statement. “UC will continue putting our students’ health and safety first — and we will be keeping a watchful eye on what the administration might propose next should we need to step in again.”

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley wrote, “We are pleased to see the change in direction that ICE announced. We remain cautious about the intentions of ICE and the Trump administration as it relates to international students, and we will continue to pursue further clarification and protections for all of our students.”.

CSU spokeswoman Toni Molle said, “The decision to withdraw the misguided policy guidance provides a welcome measure of relief to returning international students pursuing their higher education goals through the California State University. There are still outstanding questions related to new students, and it is our hope that forthcoming clarification will maintain opportunities for those students. We continue to review for potential impacts, and as we gain more clarity will share additional guidance.”

The decision was announced at the beginning of the first hearing of a federal lawsuit filed by Harvard University and M.I.T. The administration also faced several other lawsuits, including one filed by the state of California and another by 17 other states and the District of Columbia.

The University of California, the California State University and the California Community Colleges all argued that the policy would have put students at risk of the coronavirus. Losing international students would have also translated into a huge drop in income for the colleges. International students make up about 14% of the student population at UC campuses and each student pays about $40,000 in tuition, more than triple what in-state students pay.

The rule announced by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) required international students to show that they would be taking at least one in-person course during the fall semester, reversing a previous rule that allowed students to take all online courses during the pandemic if their college was not offering in-person courses.

California has more international students than any other state, with about 40,000 international students enrolled at the nine campuses of the University of California in 2019. The California Community Colleges chancellor estimated that the rule could have impacted about 20,000 students, and the California State University estimated about 11,300 students at their campuses would have been affected.

Courtesy of Giorgia Florentino

Giorgia Fiorentino is a graduate student from Italy at Cal State Los Angeles.

When Giorgia Fiorentino, 27, found out she and her husband will not be forced to return to Italy, she immediately felt safer. Both Fiorentino and her husband are graduate students. Fiorentino has one semester of studying archaeology left at Cal State Los Angeles; her husband must complete another four years at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena for a degree in engineering and physics.

Returning to Italy would have made it hard for them to continue their studies, Fiorentino said.

“In Italy, now the job market is destroyed. And then we don’t know where to stay because we don’t have a house there,” she said. “Probably, we would have to go stay with my parents, and I don’t even know if they have a stable internet connection.”

Fiorentino looks forward to completing her last semester at Cal State Los Angeles now that she knows the last class she has to take and the classes she will be teaching will be online without consequence.

“Now we feel like we can carry on with our plans,” she said. “We want to stay here. We like it here.”

Paula Kiley, a student at Cal State Long Beach, and Marisa Martinez, a student at Cal State Los Angeles, are members of the EdSource California Student Journalism Corps.

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