Washington Watch: Higher ed fights back against international student policy


The higher education community is aggressively fighting new guidance announced last week by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that would force international students enrolled in colleges operating entirely online in the fall semester (or shift to all online classes during the term) to either leave the country or transfer to another institution.  

The outcry from community college presidents and other leaders against this policy has been swift and strong. The American Association of Community Colleges, working with the American Council on Education and many other higher education associations, is involved in a three-pronged effort to stop this policy. 

A letter of opposition

The first of these efforts is an opportunity for community colleges to add their voices to the chorus of disapproval over the DHS policy by joining an institutional sign-on letter urging Congress to take immediate steps to reverse it. The letter’s intent is to show Congress that this policy is opposed across higher education, with a maximum number of institutions signing on. Congress has a few options for preventing the policy from going into effect, but President Trump would need to sign any legislation that does so. 

Community college leaders who agree with the position laid out in the letter are urged to sign on by the deadline of 5:00 PM ET on July 15.

Late last week, 81 higher education associations, including AACC, sent a letter to DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf opposing the policy “in the strongest possible terms” and asking him to withdraw it. The correspondence cites the tremendous uncertainty and hardship that the policy will impose on international students and institutions. 

Also noted is that the policy completely reverses the department’s treatment of international students in March guidance, which allowed them to stay in the country while pursuing online studies. One difference between then and now is that Trump and his administration are currently pressuring schools and colleges to fully reopen in the fall. While the DHS policy does not explicitly cite reopening, Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli recently made the connection. 

Legal action

In addition to responding to DHS directly and communicating with Congress, AACC and 70 other higher education associations are assisting efforts to stop the policy in the courts. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed the first of several lawsuits that have either been filed or announced by other institutions and state attorneys general. Under ACE’s leadership, the higher education associations on Monday filed an amicus brief in the Harvard case supporting the call for a temporary restraining order that would prevent the policy from going into effect immediately. That brief will likely be filed in the additional cases as well. 

DHS indicated that it will soon issue a Temporary Final Rule on this matter that will formalize and perhaps expand upon the policy announced in its recent communication. Meanwhile, absent a court order that would prevent it, institutions that plan to operate entirely online in the fall have until July 15 to file a change in operation plan with DHS. 

About the Author

Jim Hermes
Jim Hermes is associate vice president of government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
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