Peninsula College officials welcome repeal of visa rule change

New international students still could face hurdles

Peninsula College President Luke Robins

Peninsula College President Luke Robins

PORT ANGELES — Peninsula College administrators momentarily cheered the news that the Trump administration had rescinded a plan to cancel visas for international students taking online-only courses, but they are wary of continued efforts to restrict or interfere with their educational opportunities.

“A ray of sunshine in what’s otherwise a pretty bleak situation,” Peninsula College President Luke Robins said of his reaction to Tuesday’s announcement of the change.

“If it had stood the way it was written, no matter what we would have done, we would have created a problem for our students.”

Colleges across the country were caught by surprise July 6 with the policy shift to bar international students from entering or remaining in the country if they are taking fully online courses, and they would risk forfeiting their student visas.

Peninsula College plans to offer predominately online-only options this fall with some in-person instruction for vocational courses.

Harvard and MIT filed the first of numerous lawsuits to block the plan, and on Tuesday, just before hearing arguments on the challenge by the two schools in federal court in Boston, Judge Allison D. Burroughs announced the Trump administration had agreed to repeal the policy.

The decision means the March decision by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to allow international students to continue their studies remotely without affecting their visa status remains in place.

“I sent [associate dean of International Programs Sophia Illakis-Doherty] a little emoji that had tears of joy,” said Jack Huls, vice president of student services.

“It’s been absolutely fantastic to see so many people rally around this.”

More than 200 colleges signed briefs in support of the Harvard and MIT challenge, and the attorneys general of 20 states, including Washington’s Bob Ferguson, also filed suit, alleging the directive was reckless, cruel and senseless.

Huls said Peninsula College had joined 33 other community colleges across the state in signing an omnibus declaration of support for Ferguson’s suit.

First-time visas

However, it is unclear what Tuesday’s decision means for students who are applying for visas for the first time and whose classes may be entirely online.

“I was communicating with the state board of community and technical colleges today about Homeland Security still planning on restricting first-time visas for international students,” Huls said.

“We would see at least a 50-percent reduction in our international enrollment for the year, so we are preparing for the next battle.”

The college is looking at an estimated international enrollment of about 60 students this fall.

Illakis-Doherty said a potential nursing student from Poland has been unable to receive approval to attend college courses since the spring quarter.

“She had her visa but was deferred from attending because of COVID,” Illakis-Doherty said. “She was deferred from summer quarter because of restrictions on coming into the country. I just got word yesterday that the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw was going to reopen travel for international students.

“If this potential new rule comes into play, if it stands, she is a new student with a new visa on a new I-20 (a form that provides proof of enrollment at a U.S. college), and she would be deferred by who knows how long. Even though the directive has been pulled away, the gate is still blocked.

“The bottom line is, if these students are turned away, they will turn to different countries to pursue their educations.”

Illakis-Doherty said three students studying remotely from their home countries had expressed reservations about returning to the U.S. to study amid the pandemic. Those students are expected to continue studying via distance learning this fall.

Reversing course so rapidly also helped international students avoid further complicating their housing and living plans for fall quarter and beyond, and the college from a lose-lose situation.

“There is a silver lining in terms of this resolving itself quickly,” Robins said. “The speed of resolution was a blessing in terms of not forcing students or colleges to make decisions that would have been very difficult to backtrack from.”

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Reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-406-0674 or mcarman@peninsuladailynews.com.

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