ASCB fights to stop newest travel ban

In the most recent chapter of the Trump administration’s anti-immigration campaign, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tried to make a change in immigration policy that would have forced thousands of international students to leave the country if their university opted to hold all virtual classes this fall. Strong grassroots advocacy, several lawsuits, and an amendment to the 2021 ICE funding bill have forced ICE to roll back the policy change.

In March, as classrooms, labs, and businesses were closing around the world, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) at ICE issued a temporary policy that allowed nonimmigrant students in the United States to take more online courses during the spring semester than normally allowed. This policy allowed international students to maintain their nonimmigrant status during the COVID-19 shutdown. However, on July 6, with schools and businesses still closed and COVID-19 infections spiking around the country, ICE issued changes to the policy. The new policy prohibited international students from taking a full load of virtual classes and remaining in the United States.

The reaction to the proposed policy change was swift. A grassroots effort started on Twitter with the hashtag #StudentBan. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) filed a lawsuit and universities across the nation followed their lead. In addition, 17 states and the District of Columbia also sued. On the morning the Harvard/MIT lawsuit trial was to begin, ICE agreed to back down and not implement the new policy for those international students already in the United States.

At the same time the lawsuits were in the courts, the ASCB contacted science-friendly members of the House Appropriations Committee alerting them to the issue and urging them to offer an amendment prohibiting ICE from implementing the policy. During a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee to approve FY21 funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE, Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) and Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI) introduced an amendment to prohibit funds from the FY21 budget from being used to implement the new ICE policy. The amendment was unanimously approved by the full House Appropriations Committee.

While the ICE agreement with Harvard solves the immediate problem, it does not protect those international students planning to attend U.S. universities in the fall. There are already news reports that ICE is barring foreign students from entering the United States for the start of the fall semester. The funding amendment covers both students already in the United States and those entering in the future. However, it still has a number of legislative hurdles to get over, including lack of support for the whole bill because of political issues associated with funding the Department of Homeland Security, such as funding for the U.S.–Mexico wall.

The reasons for the initial policy change are unclear. It’s possible it was done in the hope that it would force universities to open as part of the administration’s effort to open all schools as a sign the COVID-19 emergency was over. It may also be part of the larger effort by the Trump White House to shrink the number of international students in the United States. Others believe that it is another attack on both science and the university community.

Despite the uncertainty about a reason for the proposed change, its repercussions were clear. If allowed to remain in place, students from around the world would be forced to leave the United States with uncertainty about being able to return. International COVID-19 travel bans prohibiting travel from the United States would have left students in limbo, unable to return to their home nations but not able to stay in the United States. In addition, universities around the country would face significant financial harm.

About the Author:

Kevin M. Wilson serves as Director of Public Policy and Media Relations for The American Society for Cell Biology. He's worked as the Legislative Director for U.S. Congressman Robert Weygand (D-RI) and as a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). He has a BA in Politics and American Government from the Catholic University of America. Email: