International students can stay in U.S. — for now

Decision to boot students back to home countries could have been career devastating


Bartosz Gierczak graduated from Manhattan College in May, and for him it seems he graduated just in time.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration declared any international students who wouldn’t be able to physically attend classes in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic would be forced to return home. With coronavirus cases surging through many parts of the country, online classes were seeming like a smarter decision each day.

But it also left colleges and universities with an impossible question: Should they prioritize the health of all of their students, or the immigration statuses of some of their students?

The move inspired national backlash, even leading schools like Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to sue the administration, with Gierczak’s alma mater signing on in support. A week later, the White House reversed its position, allowing international students to stay no matter how classes were conducted in the fall.

“Honestly, I was expecting something stupid to happen, or something ridiculous like this,” said Gierczak, who came to the United States from Poland. “I was just thinking, ‘Thank God I just graduated.’”

Before the Trump administration’s about-face, many colleges were searching for policy loopholes that would allow their international students to stay. Many considered having some classes meet in-person once a semester, meaning they wouldn’t be “fully remote,” thus requiring international students to remain close to campus.

Locally, Manhattan College is adopting a “hybrid model” for its upcoming semester, meaning there will be a mix of in-person and online classes. But if the college was forced to go completely remote for reasons outside of its control — like another outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 — it would have left its international student population vulnerable to deportation.

Tamara Britt, Manhattan College’s general counsel, said while Manhattan College was not planning to create an in-person class specifically so international students could remain in the country, members of its community were nevertheless ready to do so.

“We did have faculty who were willing to step up and say, ‘I’m going to teach an (in-person) three-credit course so that these students can stay in the country,’” Britt said. “We thought that was just amazing, and that’s the kind of community we have.”

The college also signed onto an amicus brief supporting the Harvard and MIT lawsuit against the White House, and were planning on signing onto a second lawsuit by Johns Hopkins University before the order reversal made those lawsuits moot.

Gierczak already found Manhattan College highly supportive of its international student population, but he especially gratified to see that support from other colleges and universities on a national scale.

“There (were) so many schools and so many professors that were actually so vocal about it,” said Gierczak, who was a philosophy and international studies student at the school. “When institutions back you up, that’s when their word actually means more than just empty words.”

Manhattan College is a part of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, a collection of more than 100 private higher education institutions in New York state. Because of this, it also provides opportunities to tap into resources of bigger-name institutions like New York University and Columbia University.

Schools in the CUNY system like Lehman College, however, don’t enjoy that access. So helping international students could be more challenging. Even in the early days of the virus, the CUNY system found it difficult to meet even the most basic, health-related needs of its students and faculty.

“The lack of investment in our university has greatly impacted our school, especially during COVID-19,” said Juvanie Piquant, vice chair of legal affairs of the CUNY University Student Senate. “When COVID started, there wasn’t enough soap or hand sanitizer on our campuses.”

Nevertheless, the CUNY system did want to help students affected by the White House’s original policy decision. Piquant “story banked” the testimonies of 92 international students in the CUNY system, who told her how being forced to return home would impact them.

Getting sent back to their countries of origin presents several obstacles for international students. There are minor inconveniences like differing time zones and missing out on the on-campus experience. But on a grander scale, in the middle of a pandemic, policies and infection rates put travel restrictions permanently in flux. So it’s possible once students leave the country, they might not be able to come back unless they pursue options outside of a student visa.

While CUNY joined other institutions of higher learning in breathing a sigh of relief when international students were told they could stay, Piquant was upset it was even considered in the first place.

“It’s something that never should have been a topic of discussion,” she said. “It would have been putting faculty and students at risk, and increasing the chances of them getting sick. And we don’t really want that.”

While America’s international students can remain, Britt from Manhattan College’s legal team thinks there could be more obstacles and hurdles further down the line. She advises international students and people who work with them to remain on guard, saying that “2020 has been a year.”

“We have to be prepared for possibly more issues or scenarios coming up, and we just have to be vigilant,” Britt said.

“I don’t know that this is necessarily the end.”