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New ICE policy permits international first years on campus, but uncertainty looms

August 6, 2020

The College announced July 27 that it is now able to host international first years on campus due to a recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) directive. The news walks back President Clayton Rose’s announcement on July 23 that first-year international students would be barred from campus in the fall.

Khoa Khuong ’04, associate dean of upperclass students and international student advisor, shared the updated news in an email to international first years four days after Rose’s initial email. International first years who are currently abroad may now come to campus for the fall semester, provided that they are able to obtain a visa and that existing travel bans do not pose an issue.

“After careful review of new fall guidance issued this past Friday by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), I am writing to confirm that those of you who wish to begin your studies at Bowdoin on campus will be permitted to do so, provided you are able to obtain an F-1 visa,” wrote Khuong.

The announcement marks the latest development in a series of unpredictable policy changes this month regarding international students, many of whom are now caught stranded amid suspended international travel routes and the crossfires of a geopolitical impasse.

On July 6, an ICE directive threatened to ban foreign students from the United States if their classes were held entirely online, a highly controversial move that drew swift condemnation from the College and the wider higher education community. Rose wrote an email to all students on July 7 in which he called the directive “appalling” and said it was “tied directly to the politics of ‘re-opening’ the country.” That edict was rescinded on July 14 in response to a lawsuit filed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with the government retreating to its March directive.

While the March directive provided exemptions for existing students with “Active” visa status taking entirely online classes, it did not permit international first years who would be taking more than one of their classes online to enter the United States. However, ICE’s newest directive allows international first-year students to enter the United States, provided that their course load is not entirely online. Under Bowdoin’s contingency plan, all first years will be taking a first-year writing seminar that will be taught in-person or have in-person elements.

The latest ICE directive came as a reprieve for many, but it does not address other issues that prevent international students from being on campus. Even for those permitted to enter, risks associated with air travel, entry bans and the global suspension of consular visa appointments remain significant obstacles. As of early August, foreign nationals who have been in China, Iran, Brazil and most of Europe within the past 14 days are not permitted to enter the United States, with the U.S. Department of State announcing that foreign students coming from Europe would be exempt. 

This means that for some international students, the development came too little, too late. Chris Zhang ’25, from Nanjing, China, said that while he felt relieved at the easing of restrictions, he decided to take a gap year after a quick calculus assessing the restrictive border policies between the United States and China led him to the conclusion that traveling to campus, while technically possible, would be a major, risky undertaking.

“Traveling to and from the College [poses] an insurmountable difficulty which I am too exhausted to relive after this spring,” he wrote in an email to the Orient. “China limits the number of flights permitted to enter the state as a precaution of COVID-19 (albeit excessively so), and as a result, many airlines reduced the number of actual flights coming in and out of China.”

“This means that even if I can somehow get to the States (many of my friends plan to self-quarantine for 14 days in a third-party country, mostly Cambodia, before going to the States), it will be well-nigh impossible for me to return home if the second wave explodes during the semester or when the semester concludes,” he added.

Nur Schettino ’24 of Alexandria, Egypt, has decided to enroll. However, as consular visa appointments continue to be suspended in his home country, his inability to secure a visa has similarly made it nearly impossible for him to join his peers on campus for the fall.

“I’m still holding out hope that visa interviews will resume and I’ll be able to get an appointment in time,” wrote Schettino in an email to the Orient. “But that doesn’t seem likely.”

According to Rose’s email last Thursday, about 20 students were previously shut out until the agency’s July 24 guidance. Those students will now be able to resume planning to come to campus, with a College-appointed immigration attorney made available to them in case of emergencies.


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