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Amid backlash, Trump administration drops new visa requirements for international students

Students walk through Eastern Washington University’s campus between classes on April 12, 2019, in Cheney.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND)

OLYMPIA – More than 20,000 international students at Washington’s colleges will no longer lose their visas if their school does not teach in-person classes in the fall, following the Trump administration’s decision Tuesday to drop its new immigration rules.

The July 6 directive would have required international students to leave the country if their schools did not offer in-person classes. Students currently out of the country would not have been able to return for the start of the school year if their classes were online only.

At the beginning of a federal lawsuit hearing brought on by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs said federal immigration authorities agreed to pull the directive.

“This was really a ridiculous proposal,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a Tuesday press conference. “It would have hurt our colleges, our universities, our students and our economy.”

The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced last week international students would not receive new visas if they were taking online-only courses in the fall. International students already in the U.S. would have faced deportation if they did not transfer schools or leave the country.

The Trump administration faced eight federal lawsuits as well as opposition from universities across the country. On Monday, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson requested a hearing in U.S. District Court in Seattle to get a temporary restraining order against the new rules.

If the rules stayed in place, the state would have lost $300 million in revenue, according to Ferguson’s request.

“Our universities and community colleges are speaking with one voice – this rule will significantly hurt their students, their budgets, and the health of their communities,” Ferguson said in a Monday press release announcing his hearing request.

The state opposed the change and would not have backed down, Inslee said Tuesday, and it will continue to oppose any federal mandates on K-12 school openings.

“We’re going to control our own destiny in Washington,” he said.

Rob Sauders, Eastern Washington University’s vice president for student affairs, said in an interview that the July 6 directive caused many international students a lot of stress.

“Today’s decision really has helped them feel a lot more comfortable and stable knowing how to plan for the fall,” he said.

Sauders said the university will continue with its hybrid plan in the fall with most classes online but allowing some classes, such as occupational therapy or engineering, to be taught face-to-face.

Although the number fluctuates, EWU currently has about 150 international students, Sauders said. Sauders said the university’s main concern was always the health and safety of its students. Forcing students into face-to-face classes to keep their visas did not follow the public health mission EWU has tried to use.

International students pay an out-of-state rate, Sauders said, but finances were never a part of the conversation surrounding their plans for the fall.

The University of Washington has 8,300 students on F-1 visas from 123 countries, according to documents filed with Ferguson’s request for a hearing. Washington State University has 1,869 students on F-1 visas and 681 new international students for the upcoming year. About 13,000 students on F-1 visas attend community colleges across the state.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Gonzaga University said it was pleased to see the support for international students within the Gonzaga community as well as institutions around the country. According to its website, Gonzaga has 200 international students from 40 different countries.

“Each of our international students is an important member of our university community who works diligently in service to a world that is in constant need of tangible solutions to complex problems,” the statement read.

Jim Camden contributed to this report.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.