U.S. reverses course on international student visas

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U.S. reverses course on international student visas

The U.S. government on Tuesday reversed a new visa policy barring international students from the country if all their classes go online due to the coronavirus pandemic, a move which comes to the relief of tens of thousands of Koreans studying in the United States.
Allison Burroughs, a U.S. district judge in Massachusetts, announced in a hearing Tuesday that the government agreed to rescind a federal directive requiring international students to take some form of in-person classes in the fall to enter or remain in the United States.  
Last week, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) over the policy in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.  
ICE announced on July 6 that the State Department will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools that are fully online for the fall semester and that Customs and Border Protection will not allow them to enter the country. The new measures would apply to all F-1 non-immigrant students pursuing academic coursework and M-1 non-immigrant students pursuing vocational coursework while studying in the United States.  
In a previous directive on March 9, ICE — under its Student and Exchange Visitor Program — had permitted international students to take classes online while remaining in the United States. Until that waiver was issued amid nationwide campus shutdowns, international students were required to take most of their classes in person in order to receive the visas.
The move blindsided both foreign students trying to pursue their studies amid the Covid-19 pandemic and U.S. universities trying to balance campus safety with quality education in their plans for the fall semester.  
The Tuesday decision means that the U.S. government will allow foreign students to remain in the United States while taking online courses, reverting back to the March directive.  
The Trump administration has pushed for a return to physical classes in the fall despite soaring rates of new Covid-19 cases in the United States.
In the past week, multiple lawsuits led by American universities and more than 17 states against the U.S. government reflected the value of international students both to the schools and local economies.
Tech companies including Google, Facebook and Microsoft also signed a legal brief supporting Harvard and MIT in their lawsuit against the U.S. government. They argued that the ban would reduce their customer base and hamper their ability to recruit top talent from U.S. universities.  
An amicus brief filed Monday signed by a group of 59 U.S. higher education institutions cited that a student at DePaul University in Chicago returning from Korea who was prevented from entering the country at San Francisco International Airport on July 8 presumably because of the new visa measure. The Korean student was allegedly blocked on the grounds that he had not yet registered for classes and thus could not prove that at least some of his courses would be in-person.  
This was the first known case of a Korean student being barred entry since the new directive by U.S. immigration authorities and also sparked concerns that other students would be blocked from the United States or even face deportation.  
Seoul’s Foreign Ministry had also been conveying concerns about the U.S. visa policy on foreign students to the United States through diplomatic channels.  
International students are already facing a range of unknowns as they weigh a higher education overseas amid a global pandemic, from costly airfare to the United States due to less frequent or suspended routes and country-specific travel restrictions, to finding housing while keeping safe from the virus and determining whether the high tuition is even worth it.  
According to the U.S.-based Institute of International Education (IIE), over a million international students studied in American institutions in the 2018 to 2019 school year.  
South Korea comes in third, following China and India, as the country sending the highest number of international students to the United States.  
According to the IIE data, 52,250 Korean students studied at U.S. universities during this period — nearly 5 percent of all international students in the United States.  
BY SARAH KIM   [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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