Statement on Rescinded Changes to Policy Barring International Students from Online-Only Academic Programs

July 16, 2020

Earlier this month, the Trump administration advanced a policy to revoke visas from international students attending higher education institutions within the United States where courses are exclusively offered online this fall. The decision announced on Tuesday to rescind this policy is a welcome change in course from the federal government.

If left in place, this policy would have created an unnecessary and significant burden on international students and on the colleges and universities that educate them. The students would have had to either transfer to a school that is offering some in-person instruction, or face consequences that may include deportation from the United States.   

A lawsuit challenging the new policy was filed by Harvard College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sigma Xi put its support behind the lawsuit by joining the American Physical Society and other professional societies in filing an amicus brief in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts on July 13. Sigma Xi signed the brief to demonstrate its support for its international members and students from all nations who are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math at higher education institutions within the United States.

“[U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)] has failed to articulate any rationale sufficient to justify canceling the visas of international students whose universities shift to remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the brief states. 

The brief argues that the U.S. leadership in science and technology heavily relies on talented scientists who first come to America as international students, and that if not rescinded, the policy would have undermined the public interest and cause “irreparable harm to the nation’s power, influence, and prestige in science and technology.”

On July 14, news outlets reported that the new policy would be rescinded so that schools could follow ICE guidance from March that allows flexibility regarding student visa eligibility. F1 is one type of visa for those pursuing academic coursework that would have been affected by the rule change. More than 360,000 students were enrolled in American colleges and universities in 2019 on F1 visas.

“The United States should provide a stable and welcoming learning environment to international students who come to this country for higher education,” Jamie Vernon, Sigma Xi executive director and CEO, said. “It is in the nation’s interests to attract talent to our scientific research enterprise and to expand the technical workforce that supports the American economy and improves the lives of all people.” 

“This rule change would have not only disrupted the lives of students,” Vernon continued. “It also would have put undue pressure on colleges and universities to offer some amount of in-person instruction this fall in order to maintain enrollment for their nonimmigrant F1 students. Schools must be able to make their autumn plans based on local public health guidance, which is grounded in the scientific evidence regarding the coronavirus-related risks in their area.” 

More About Sigma Xi: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society is the world’s largest multidisciplinary honor society for scientists and engineers. Its mission is to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition. Sigma Xi chapters can be found at colleges and universities, government laboratories, and industry research centers around the world. More than 200 Nobel Prize winners have been members. The Society is based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. On Twitter: @SigmaXiSociety