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International Student Services
Credit: Courtesy of UW

New Trump administration rule has Washington's international students on edge

International students across the U.S. are facing upheaval after a recent change in visa rules.

Under a new policy from the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, students would need to attend classes in-person, even during the pandemic. If they don't, students would be forced to leave the country or transfer to a school that is providing in-person classes.

KUOW's Kim Malcolm discusses the story with Esmy Jimenez and how it could affect Washington state.

Washington is one of the top states in the country that attracts international students. How many students could this affect in Washington state?

Jimenez: This could affect about 27,000 international students, according to the International Educational Exchange. Most of those students are from China, Vietnam, and India. The majority are at the University of Washington, but they're also in Pullman at Washington State University. They are at Seattle Central, and Bellevue College.

Over the last four years, the number of international students has been dropping. That could be because immigration laws are becoming more restrictive overall, but Washington is still among the top 11 states with the most international students in the country. So, it's a big issue that's affecting students now.

As you've been talking with students from overseas, what are you hearing?

I talked to one recent PhD graduate at UW. She's finishing some additional work for another year. She goes by Su. She's from Myanmar. If she goes home, this is going to be a real problem.

Su said: “So it's been you know, confusing, very panic-stricken and, yeah, a whole lot of emotions. To go back to my home country, there will be 12 hours or so of time difference, and I'm not going to be able to do the work that I need to do successfully.”

As often happens with policy changes from the Trump administration, a lawsuit has been filed. Harvard and MIT are both suing DHS and ICE over this rule. They say it's expensive, it's impractical. In some cases, it's dangerous for students to return to their home countries just to take courses online. What has been the response so far from Washington universities?

I talked to the interim president of Bellevue College, Gary Locke. Here's what he shared: “All the community technical colleges, including the four-year schools, are conferring with our state Attorney General and the state is contemplating legal action joining the lawsuit.”

The UW has also said it's working with the state congressional delegation, and they're hoping to figure out a way to overturn the rule. Have we heard from the state Attorney General on this yet?

I reached out. They have not shared details yet, but there is the potential that they'll be joining the Harvard lawsuit.

This is going to affect schools on an economic level. International students pay tuition fees that are higher than their U.S. citizen counterparts. They also have leases. They buy groceries. They invest in things, just like the rest of us. If they start dropping their studies in the U.S. and moving back home, that means that universities and the community loses out on all that money as well.

Schools are making contingency plans right now for the fall as this pandemic continues. How is it looking locally for these international students as they contemplate attending classes in person?

It's a really big challenge, as students feel like they are choosing between keeping their immigration status, or risking their health. It's also really stressful on professors, and the staff, who are worried about their own risk with Covid. But, they want to keep their students from having to go back home.

There's a petition floating around right now. It’s asking the UW to do everything they can to fight this rule. And on social media, educators are telling students "If you're an international student, and you need to take a course to keep your immigration status, let me know and I'll figure something out. We’ll do something to make sure you can stay."

Likewise, on Instagram and social media, there are lists of classes that are meeting in-person. International students know that they have to take one of those so they can stay in the U.S. and meet the new requirement.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.