September 23, 2020

Reversal eases uncertainty for Florida's international students

TALLAHASSEE --- The Trump administration on Tuesday rescinded rules that could have put thousands of foreign students in Florida at risk of deportation if their fall semester classes were held entirely online during the coronavirus pandemic.

The policy reversal was announced a little over a week after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said foreign students would not be allowed to remain in the country if their universities and colleges offered only online classes to them.

Shortly after Tuesday’s announcement, University of Florida International Center Dean Leonardo A. Villalón wrote to the school's international students to assure them that they would be able to continue their studies in the fall with the model that is “deemed best in the context of the current pandemic.”

“There will be no requirement for courses with a physical presence,” Villalón said in an email Tuesday evening.

When Florida universities shut down in March in response to the pandemic, federal immigration authorities relaxed student-visa requirements and allowed international students to continue studying online during the spring semester. Foreign students usually are required to take the majority of their classes in person to meet visa requirements.

State university officials were hoping the flexibility would be extended through the fall semester as most schools were planning to offer a mix of online and in-person classes in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. 

But the Trump administration on July 6 said the U.S. Department of State would not issue visas to students who were enrolled in schools that planned to hold classes solely online during the fall. The federal mandate left Florida university officials scrambling for answers, as thousands of international students could have faced deportation if their fall schedules did not offer a certain amount of in-person classes.

Concerned about the implication of the federal mandate, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit to try to block the policy from taking effect. The decision to reverse the policy on Tuesday was announced at the start of a hearing in the federal lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs said federal immigrations authorities agreed to pull the July 6 directive and “return to the status quo” that was in place during the spring, the Associated Press reported.

“We join universities around the country in welcoming this decision,” Villalón said in the email Tuesday.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., also welcomed the decision to rescind what she called a "hateful rule."

“International students are a staple of Miami’s diverse culture and strengthen our important connections to Latin America --- nearly 25 percent of all international students from South America study in Florida,” Mucarsel-Powell, whose district includes part of Miami-Dade County, said.

She said the Trump administration should stop attacks on people who come from other countries and said the administration should not punish students, administrators and schools “for taking this pandemic seriously” and opting to hold classes online.

In his email, Villalón also acknowledged the stress that international students went through in the past week as they faced uncertainty with the federal mandate.

“Please know that you are core and valued members of the Gator Nation,” Villalón said. “We look forward, with pleasure, to continuing to work with you for a successful 2020-2021 academic year, at a time when universities have a more important role than ever to play in addressing the challenges facing the world.”

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