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International student Town Hall: confusion and assurance over ICE guidance and possible next steps

July 14, 2020

In a Zoom Town Hall for international students hosted Thursday morning, College administrators answered questions from international students adversely impacted by the new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) guidance which would deny current student visa holders legal presence in the United States if their classes are held entirely online. Under the new rule, existing visa holders must depart the country for the fall semester, and no new visas will be issued to international students abroad whose schools are entirely online. These new rulings come at a time when administrative backlogs and bureaucratic delays have crippled U.S. consulates and embassies around the world.

Khoa Khuong ’04, associate dean of upperclass students and international student advisor, moderated the discussions. Students were allowed to directly raise questions to several administrators in the face-to-face video conference, which was predominantly run by President Clayton Rose and Dean for Student Affairs Janet Lohmann.

College’s understanding of guidance and immediate response

College officials have found the new guidance and the subsequent FAQs—directives now being challenged in court—replete with ambiguities and contradictions. Because of the confusing clauses and vague language, higher education institutions across the country scrambled to understand its ramifications, and the College was unable to provide immediate clarity for international students. College administrators and external counsel are still at work deciphering the regulations’ implications for Bowdoin.

Khuong made it clear that students who are currently in the United States are not at risk of deportation at this time since the guidance has yet to be finalized into a “Temporary Final Rule.”

“This announcement has no immediate effect on your immigration status because you’re currently in a normal summer recess from school,” he said. “The COVID-19 guidance that was issued early in March still applies until the fall semester, which by definition is the beginning of the first day of classes.”

Rose said that ICE has put schools in three categories: entirely online, entirely in-person and hybrid. He described Bowdoin as a hybrid school, citing in-person learning experiences such as first-year seminars and certain honors projects. However, he said it is uncertain how many in-person courses are required to satisfy ICE’s requirements.

Rose explained that, because of the nuances of the ICE mandate, it may be difficult for international students living abroad to engage in the remote curriculum while retaining their F-1 status. The ICE directives only allow students enrolled at institutions with an entirely online curriculum to take a remote courseload abroad while retaining their status, meaning that Bowdoin’s status as an institution technically adopting a hybrid model may not enable its international students to qualify. But, if any particular international student were going to have an entirely online curriculum, even at an institution where some students were taking courses in person, the guidance also bars them from remaining in the United States.

Rose imagined the worst-case scenario as one in which international students in residence would have to take most of their classes in person, while those abroad would be unable to engage in the remote curriculum while retaining F-1 status, calling it a “double whammy.” However, he also cautioned against drawing definitive conclusions as of yet, pointing to the vagueness of the language used in the guidance and the fluid nature of the situation.

“We need to be careful that this is proposed language; some of it is very imprecise as it stands today and may get more precise [or] change depending on the work that’s going on,” said Rose.

“It’s going to be some days in the best case and some weeks in the worst case before we have clarity on what’s going on here,” he added.

In light of the significant challenges and uncertainties ahead, the College is allowing returning international students to wait until August 31 to decide whether to take a personal leave of absence and is allowing incoming first-year international students to wait until the same date before deciding on whether to defer their admission.

If international students need to remain in the United States to complete their fall semester in order to retain legal status, Khuong said that the College would devote everything in their power to help students secure housing on campus.

Lohmann said that, while she is sympathetic to the various moving parts involved for international students at this time, students would not be given additional flexibility for course registration.

“I’m not going to be a bearer of good news on that; we’re going to need you to register for courses with everybody else. This is our registration system that is complicated in and of itself,” she said. “The registration piece is something that is immovable, and we’re just going to have to ask you to make decisions based on what your aspirational hope is as to where you might be [for the fall].”

What the College is doing

In an email to the campus community on Monday, Rose announced that the College has signed onto amicus briefs in support of both the Harvard lawsuit filed last Wednesday and a separate suit filed by the University of California and California State University systems. A decision about Harvard’s petition for emergency injunctive relief is expected Wednesday.

Rose has said that the College is working with an international law firm based in Washington, D.C. which deals with situations such as this when the need arises. He assured students that the firm specializes in the work at hand and is “plugged into” the various parts of government that are involved.

Rose is also in close contact with Maine’s congressional delegation, including Sens. Angus King (I-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME), as well as Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME-1). All three members of Congress stand opposed to the measure and are mobilizing other members’ support in calling on ICE to rescind the guidance.

Possible next steps

Lohmann emphasized that the College is exploring every available option to provide international students with the assurance that they would be able to safely complete their studies for the fall semester. However, administrators were not able to provide any specific plans as of Thursday.

One student asked about whether Bowdoin was considering three particular possibilities: incorporating an in-person study session, devising in-person research plans with advisors and using the Colby-Bates-Bowdoin (CBB) consortium to take in-person classes at the other two institutions (Colby and Bates have announced plans to incorporate in-person learning for students of all class years in the fall). Lohmann said that the College is considering all three and would be willing to implement one if it would satisfy the requirements.

Responding to the popular suggestion, adopted by some other colleges, of creating a special course just for international students to satisfy the requirements, administrators said that nothing is off the table, but they indicated that rolling out a plan prematurely might spell trouble for students in the long run.

“I appreciate the fact that they’ve said that they’re looking at these things, but until we know what the rules are and how they affect our students, the rolling out of a plan is premature because it may, in fact, not be a solution to the problem,” said Rose.

One potential dilemma is that ICE may reject the model, seeing the class as an illegitimate workaround. Under the guidance, Bowdoin would have to submit a certification to ICE by Wednesday specifying which of the three categories the College falls under. The College would also have to update status files for each international student by August 4.

“There is language buried in the certification that we have to do that suggests that ICE and the Department of Homeland Security are looking precisely for those kinds of courses, and making sure that those are not the things that are used to solve the problem,” Rose added. “It’s very complicated.

Some of the uncertainties Bowdoin faces stem from aspects of the College’s plans that were not addressed by ICE. Bowdoin offers some in-person classes, but they apply specifically depending on a student’s circumstances. ICE currently has contradictory directives in determining whether students attending hybrid schools but whose own courses are entirely online may retain their student status while studying in their home country.

“While [most international students] are all remote, we’re also hybrid. Is that going to be sufficient [to] meet ICE’s guidelines? That’s one of the questions we’ve put on the table,” said Lohmann. “So I get that there’s been other institutions that have said ‘this is what we’re going to do,’ [but] we want to make sure that [what] we’re going to do is not in the long term going to, in some way, negatively impact our students.”

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