PORT ANGELES — About 60 international students enrolled at Peninsula College for the fall quarter may find their student status turned upside down after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released a new rule.
The ICE policy threatens to revoke educational visas for international students if they are not taking in-person classes during the fall instructional period.
Administrators at Peninsula College, which plans to offer a hybrid plan with largely online classes in the fall, said they were surprised by the Monday announcement and puzzled by its intent.
“I think the entire higher education community in the U.S. was caught by surprise,” Peninsula College President Luke Robins said. “There was no advance warning that this was going to happen.”
Under the new federal Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) rule, foreign students currently living overseas whose courses will be taught fully online would be barred from entering the country and could risk forfeiting their student visas.
Those already in the U.S. must either leave the country or transfer to a school with in-person instruction to keep their visas.
If COVID-19 forces a college to transition to online-only instruction, foreign students must leave the U.S. or take alternative steps to maintain their nonimmigrant status such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave.
A time crunch ushered in by the decision also complicates matters.
Colleges must submit their instructional intentions to ICE by Aug. 1 and “update and re-issue all forms I-20 to update and reflect these changes in program enrollment and student information by Aug. 4.”
Concerned students have reached out in droves to Sophia Iliakis-Doherty, Peninsula College director of international programs.
“Our international students right now are really feeling anger, anguish and anxiety,” she said. “They are confused, and they feel like their world right now is in chaos and are really disappointed with this decision.
“Now they are in one bucket or the other. The students here feel stuck here, especially with the travel bans [restricting travel from the U.S.], while the ones that aren’t here have to come back to a country with the most cases of COVID-19 in the world. Parents are worried,” Iliakis-Doherty continued.
“We’ve worked so hard as an institution to support these students and now we wonder if they will end up going to study in another country because they are tired of our immigration policies or demotivated to complete their studies completely, which is a tragedy considering the amount of work they’ve invested.”
Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a federal lawsuit against the rule Wednesday. The suit seeks a 14-day restraining order and asks for the rule to be vacated or set aside as “arbitrary or capricious.”
“It’s an example of a policy decision that has significant intended and unintended consequences,” Robins said. “The question a lot of folks have is, what is the purpose? What good is served by this? From our perspective, it’s hard to see a positive effect from this policy being put in place.”
Robins said Peninsula College’s Port Angeles, Port Townsend and Forks sites will operate on a hybrid model when fall quarter classes begin Sept. 28.
“Our fall instructional plans fall in the hybrid category,” Robins said. “That would include some face-to-face instruction with social distancing and PPE precautions.
“The focus would be on our vocational offerings, such as tech prep welding or nursing. Those programs that have lab or shop components.
“Our intention is to provide instruction remotely, simply because we don’t have great confidence in being able to open campus and stay open in the fall.”
ICE’s directive states “Non-immigrant F-1 students attending schools adopting a hybrid model — that is, a mixture of online and in-person classes — will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online. Colleges must certify that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program.”
The Peninsula campus shut down March 17, the final week of winter quarter, and went almost completely online for the spring quarter, besides limited in-person vocational instruction near the end of the term.
Most of Peninsula’s international students left the country at that time and continued their studies back home courtesy of a visa exemption to grapple with COVID-19 and the shutdown of campuses nationwide.
That “policy permitted non-immigrant students to take more online courses than normally permitted by federal regulation to maintain their non-immigrant status during the COVID-19 emergency.”
“What it boils down to, if we chose to be completely online, it would disenfranchise students already here and force them to leave the country,” Illakis-Doherty said.
“If we are hybrid, the international students who went home will be disadvantaged because, if we cancel their I-20 [certification of enrollment], they would be disenrolled and their only option [to continue to study in the U.S.] is to leave their country and enroll at a different school.
“It’s a confounding issue because, no matter what we do, it puts students in jeopardy of continuing their education.”
The rule also could further expose Peninsula College economically. It already faced a budget shortfall tied to diminished enrollment prior to the pandemic and was looking at deeper state cuts.
Most Peninsula College students take 15-credit course loads per quarter, with state residents paying tuition of $1,575 per term during the 2019-20 academic year and international students paying $3,390.
“A large impact on a cultural and economic scale,” Illakis-Doherty said of potential rule impacts. “It’s a relatively modest number of students, but they contribute so much. We have host families that are paid a monthly fee, restaurants, stores they dine and shop at, and imagine the lack of diversity in PA without international students.”
Using 2018-19 data, NAFSA: Association of International Educators estimated that more than 1 million international students in the U.S. contribute $41 billion to the economy and create or support nearly 500,000 jobs. In Washington, 27,000-plus students contribute nearly $1 billion and support nearly 9,000 jobs.
Robins said he’s hopeful other colleges join the Harvard-MIT lawsuit or see states file their own.
“The whole situation is still unfolding,” Robins said.
“Our college has had a long-standing commitment to international education, and having international students on our campus is a critical part of the college culture,” he continued.
“This is a central pillar of what we do and how we think of ourselves as an institution. It strikes to the heart of what we do.”
Reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-406-0674 or [email protected].