Xenophobic. Misguided. Cruel.

Washington’s colleges and universities didn’t pull any punches this week when they blasted a new federal directive that would require international students to return to their home countries if the schools have to go to all-online classes this fall.

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Seattle joined with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, both Democrats, to urge federal agencies to withdraw the guidance, saying it threatened the status of more than 1 million international students this fall. The letter has been signed by nearly 100 lawmakers in the House and Senate.

On Friday, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he would file a lawsuit in federal court in Seattle challenging the proposed rule, set to go into effect July 15. Harvard and MIT have filed a lawsuit to try to block the guidance, and one state university, Western Washington University, joined an amicus brief in support of that lawsuit.

The guidance, issued earlier this week by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security, throws tens of thousands of international students who study in Washington state into limbo at a time when coronavirus cases are rising here and across the nation. In this state, as of Friday, only Eastern Washington University was planning to teach online this fall, but it’s impossible to know what the landscape will look like by August and September, when classes resume.

In addition to requiring international students to leave the country if their school goes all-online, it could also affect international students who go to schools that move to a hybrid model — some classes online, some in person. Many of the state’s public and private schools plan to use the hybrid model this fall. Under the guidance, international students at hybrid-model schools must take at least one face-to-face class.

University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce called the guidance “pointless, heartless and a betrayal of the nation’s values.” The university — which has the 13th-highest enrollment of international students in the country, according to an analysis by The Chronicle of Higher Education — plans to go to a hybrid model this fall.


This spring the UW Seattle campus had 7,320 international students, making up 16.8% of enrollment.

“This targeted order is both blatantly xenophobic and oblivious to the reality of the public health situation in this country,” wrote Brent Carbajal, Western’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, in a statement released Thursday.

Western expects to teach 25% to 30% of its classes in person in the fall, and the UW expects 30% of its classes will be in person, which could put international students in a bind if they cannot get a spot in one of those classes. For the fall quarter, 120 international students are expected to be enrolled at WWU, about 30 of whom will stay in their home countries and take classes online.

In a town hall meeting Friday, Cauce said international students “bring an incredible richness to the learning community.” They have also become a critical source of funding for the university, since both they and out-of-state domestic students pay more than three times as much in tuition as in-state students — $39,000 versus the in-state rate of about $12,000. In-state students pay less because their families pay state taxes that help subsidize the university.

“We’re just left with impossible choices here,” said Nayon Park, a Ph.D. student in chemistry from South Korea.

Park, a fellow at the UW’s Clean Energy Institute, is finishing her third year of a five-year program, and is doing cutting-edge research on nanomaterials that could improve the energy efficiency of LEDs used in computer screens and TVs. Because much of her work is in a lab, her progress and degree would be set back significantly if she had to return to South Korea.


“We don’t have many options in terms of what’s happening to our lives in the next weeks, or months,” said Park, who recently renewed the lease on her apartment. Park wouldn’t have trouble returning to South Korea because her country never closed its borders, but around the world, some countries have suspended international flights. A few have also closed land borders.

At the UW, a petition calling on the university to create a one-credit, face-to-face class to allow international students to stay in the U.S. had gathered more than 26,000 signatures by Friday on the website change.org. However, UW spokesman Victor Balta said in an email that “it would be highly problematic to create any class that would be a clear attempt at skirting the regulations, and such a move could draw increased attention to the UW from the federal government.”

Cauce noted that the Department of Homeland Security put an emergency waiver in place earlier this year that allowed international students to maintain their student visa status while taking only online courses. “Taking away that flexibility is cruel and completely oblivious to the reality of the pandemic in this country, which, unlike the outbreaks that many of our allies have tamped down, continues to surge,” she wrote.

“And at a time when America’s global leadership is under severe strain, during a crisis demanding a spirit of international unity and cooperation, this proposal isn’t just cruel, it’s counterproductive,” she wrote.

About 27,000 students from other countries study in Washington, and those students contributed nearly $1 billion to the state’s economy in 2018, the latest year for which numbers were available, according to the Institute for International Education.