As faculty and students at the University of Washington, we are appalled by the new federal directive that would impede international students from continuing their education at colleges and universities if classes are only held online.

This is just the latest attack on immigrants following the Trump administration’s executive order that suspended employment-based H1-B visas last month. This new rule is cruel, discriminatory and inhumane as it forces universities to choose between supporting students who are an integral part of the university family, and the safety of that family and the larger community during a deadly pandemic.

In 2018, there were more than 27,000 international students attending colleges and universities in Washington state, with nearly 8,000 at the University of Washington — the state’s largest university.

The desire to attend higher-education institutions in this country — and be surrounded by a community of learners — is one reason the U.S. is a global intellectual leader. Not only do these students gain from their education in the U.S., Americans gain from their contributions in the classroom and beyond.

Students who have trained in the U.S. have become global leaders across disciplines, showcasing core values that were cultivated as students at our institutions — innovation, entrepreneurship, tenacity, and a commitment to improving health and well-being. Washington state and the entire U.S. benefit when the best minds from across the globe come together to learn and share. The fear that international students take opportunities, jobs and resources from U.S. students is unwarranted, and data show that is a false narrative.

This proposed policy has the potential to upend lives with disastrous and unforeseeable consequences. If forced to leave the U.S., many students may not have sufficient internet access to participate in their education online, while others may have to give up their current research projects as the work cannot be done remotely from abroad.


Lastly, and most important, some countries have imposed travel restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 so, logistically, some students can’t return home. While this conversation mainly pertains to international students, the rights and safety of all immigrants — documented, undocumented, temporary, or long-standing — require our support and advocacy. This most recent rule against students is a continuation of the anti-immigrant sentiment that has been building for the past few years and serves to further alienate those among the most vulnerable in our society.

Ultimately, rules that pressure institutions to meet in-person during an ongoing, uncontrolled and unpredictable pandemic serve to threaten the health of students, faculty, staff and community as a whole. Universities must be empowered to make decisions that are in the best interest of the health of the community while ensuring that all students can continue their education in the most optimal manner.

In response to COVID-19, universities and their faculty have placed compassion and empathy at the forefront of teaching as we all work to adapt and learn during these challenging times. The proposed policy is in direct conflict with this approach and serves to discriminate and disadvantage our students who we are committed to educate, pandemic or no.

We call on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security to rescind this rule. We call on the University of Washington and other universities to challenge this proposed rule at the highest level. We call on our community to contact their elected representatives and state their objections to this proposed policy. We call on each other to support our international students — by reaching out to them and providing resources to support their mental health during this uncertain time.

To our international students in Washington and across the country, we see you, we hear you, we are fighting for you and we want you to be here.

Others contributing to this Op-Ed are Yasaman Zia, Renee Heffron, Ruanne V. Barnabas.