According to Chris Reid, the assistant director of the office of International Student Services, the July 6 announcement by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) took everybody by surprise. Some policy updates were anticipated, but nobody expected drastic changes so close to the start of the semester and mid-pandemic.
As a result, thousands of students and faculty alike are petitioning; professors are exploring alternative options to keep their students in the country; Harvard and MIT filed a lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security.
“This is not a settled matter,” Reid said. “This is far from finished.”
Losing international students has 'huge implications'
Bhavi Desai is living in Columbia for the summer and will be leasing an apartment through the spring semester. A fourth-year finance student and treasurer for the International Student Association, Desai said she doesn't know what she would do about her lease if the university was to move online.
Desai is from India and would have to leave the country if she could not take an in-person course.
“It feels like we’re not valued here,” Desai said.
SEVP, a division of ICE, set new guidelines that international students enrolled at universities offering a hybrid of online and in-person classes in the fall — such as USC — may not remain in the country without taking an in-person course.
The same guidelines call for international students enrolled at universities that will be entirely online in the fall to “depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring.”
Since USC plans to continue offering face-to-face classes, Reid said, students should not yet panic, though he understands why they may be “ticked off at how this is being handled.”
“This is concerning because it is a looming threat," he said.
Last fall, 1,966 international students from 98 different countries were enrolled at USC. Sending them home would have "huge implications," Reid said.
As non-residents, international students pay nearly twice the tuition of South Carolina residents. According to Carla Pfeffer, an associate professor of sociology and the director of women’s and gender studies, international students are critical to the university’s economics. A loss of these students is a loss of revenue at a time when the university is already experiencing budget cuts and furloughs.
Reuters reports the approximate 1.1 million international students studying in the United States in 2018-2019 accounted for 5.5% of all college students in the country and contributed $44.7 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018.
Peter Brews, dean of the Darla Moore School of Business, said immigrant entrepreneurs often get their start in America through connections gained at their universities. If this directive forces aspiring entrepreneurs to leave the country, they may never return.
According to a 2019 study by the New American Economy Research Fund, 44.6% of Fortune 500 companies "were founded by immigrants or their children," and they brought trillions of dollars of revenue into the economy.
"We are chasing away very well-trained, highly qualified people who may have started companies in the United States over the next 10 to 20 years, who we are going to be sending somewhere else," Brews said, "and that's a tremendous pity."
Faculty advocate for international students while exploring alternative in-person options
The Graduate Student Association (GSA) released a statement on Tuesday demanding USC take action to ensure all international students have opportunities for in-person instruction.
“Our concern is we want to guarantee that if the university is forced to pivot because of COVID in the fall, that international students will have a workaround,” GSA treasurer Christopher Eddy said.
According to faculty senate chair Mark Cooper, faculty could theoretically offer independent studies or thesis preparation classes that would qualify as in-person instruction, even if most classes ultimately move online. The process of getting independent studies approved is not difficult, he said, and most departments already have sections available for sign-up.
Cooper described these courses as “a contract or an agreement between the student and the faculty member.” They are flexible and can be any number of credit hours, but students must make sure their workload matches the assigned hours.
Pfeffer said she has heard faculty members discuss how they could work around the ICE guidelines in order to keep international students on campus.
"More than a loophole, I just think of these as pragmatic ways to respond to an unreasonable administration and one that is trying to force the hand of universities against their will to basically root out international students,” Pfeffer said.
Pfeffer signed the Open Letter Against the Student Ban when she saw it circulating on Facebook. Organized for faculty by Boston University sociology professor Heba Gowayed, the petition had 140 signatures at the time.
There are now more than 33,000 faculty and staff signatures, including approximately 175 from the USC system as of Sunday.
“The students themselves have relatively less power,” Pfeffer said. “I think that if faculty, those of us who have relative privilege, especially those of us who are tenured and have the security of tenure, don't stand up to speak out against that sort of injustice, who will?”
President Bob Caslen and Provost William Tate released a statement Wednesday reaffirming their support for international students and stating they would reach out to South Carolina’s congressional delegation and schedule a virtual meeting with Sen. Lindsey Graham.
According to Tate, the goal in working with government officials is to “make sure that no more new policies come up and that we can, if possible, see this policy eliminated.”
Harvard, MIT challenge has 'a lot of basis' for success
The July 6 directive serves mostly as a return to standard procedures from before the pandemic, according to Reid.
SEVP relaxed its policy on March 13 in response to COVID-19, stating these updated guidelines would allow international students to take all online classes and would remain "in effect for the duration of the emergency."
The United States remains in a public health state of emergency.
On July 8, Harvard and MIT filed a lawsuit against ICE and DHS in response to the new guidelines. The trial is set for 3 p.m. Tuesday at the U.S. District Court in Boston.
According to Wadie Said, a professor of law specializing in immigration, cases predicated on the morality or justice of an issue typically do not succeed. Cases such as Harvard and MIT's that challenge the government's procedural due process tend to be more successful. On a district court level, the government has a historically poor record in cases involving changes to immigration policies, suggesting there is "a lot of basis" that the universities could be successful in their challenge.
USC will likely not take legal action, Tate said, but it is "100% behind" Harvard and MIT's intention to stop the directive from taking effect.
“I don’t think we have to do that with Harvard and MIT using their money to sue,” Tate said. “I think that once one of our partner institutions who has a similar position has gone into the legal realm, the rest of us can just be cheerleaders, and we hope that they are able to get this halted and stopped as a result of a legal decision.”
ICE declined The Daily Gamecock’s request for comment “due to pending litigation.”
The latest SEVP updates can be found on the International Student Services webpage.