Editorial: International students deserve protection

Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system.

As the fall semester quickly approaches, colleges and universities are struggling to prepare for an unknown safety environment amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether to conduct classes in person, online or a combination of the two is an open question at many institutes of higher learning in Connecticut and beyond, with the answers subject to change as the prevalence of the virus in coming months remains uncertain.

Even in Connecticut, where incidences of coronavirus and hospitalizations have continued a long decline, there is nothing certain about what the world of higher education will look like at the end of summer break, which is only weeks away. Administrators have to plan for all contingencies, and further alterations are likely.

What no one needs is a threat to the well-being of thousands of international students, who make up a large portion of many local colleges and universities, especially in the midst of so much uncertainty elsewhere. But that’s what arrived this week from the federal government in the form of guidelines from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which is saying that international students must take at least some of their classes in person or risk losing their visas.

The ICE rules must be rescinded or at the very least clarified. As it stands, thousands of students will worry whether they have a place in this country even after seemingly being welcomed to its higher education system.

Reaction to the guidelines has been swift and outraged. “This is yet another harmful action from a federal administration hell-bent on attacking immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ communities and anyone they can define as the ‘other,’” Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State College and University system, said Tuesday. The American Council on Education, which represents college and university presidents, called the guidelines “horrifying.”

Whether this represents a point of pressure forcing colleges to reopen for in-person instruction is immaterial. The president has made clear he thinks higher education as well as K-12 should reopen as usual this fall, but there are hundreds of variables and innumerable obstacles to making that happen. Regardless, putting the onus on international students and potentially putting their safety at risk by forcing travel during a pandemic is the wrong way to approach the issue.

International students represent a great boon for colleges and universities, adding to a unique educational environment and providing opportunities that are not always available elsewhere. Their presence on our local campuses should be celebrated, not targeted.

There is also a financial question. Last year, universities in the United States attracted nearly 1.1 million students from abroad, and losing international students could cause serious hardship for colleges that depend on the higher tuition rates that international students often pay.

There is no good reason for the latest ICE directive, and no evidence that it will improve anyone’s safety or well-being. Instead, it will put people at risk. College administrators have enough to worry about as they try to return to something close to normal in the coming fall semester. They should not need to worry about the future of a large cohort of their student body.

Connecticut Media Group