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Colorado colleges, universities scramble after Trump orders international students to leave if classes go online

There are thousands of international students who attend higher education institutions in the state. Many are still figuring out what the changes issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement mean.

Students stream up the staircase to the new CASE Center at the University of Colorado on Jan. 21, 2020. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)
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News that international students will be forced under rules issued Monday by the Trump administration to leave the U.S. if they don’t take in-person classes has left Colorado colleges and universities scrambling to interpret the changes and make plans for thousands of pupils. 

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While most of the state’s higher education institutions are planning to offer a hybrid of in-person and online classes come fall, the via rules place students in limbo if they are unwilling and/or unable to return to campus. 

The change also adds another level of difficulty and anxiety for international students in Colorado who have already had to contend with a host of coronavirus-related barriers, including international travel restrictions and limited flight availability. They have either faced barriers in returning home or must weigh the prospect of coming to the U.S. and risk being turned away from their native countries later because of the United States’ inability to contain the virus.

Colorado College, a private liberal arts school in Colorado Springs, says it has about 200 international students. That represents roughly 10% of the small college’s student population. 

Allen Bertsche, CC’s director for global education, said he’s hopeful the Trump administration’s changes won’t affect the college’s international students too much. Many said they want to be on campus anyway — the college will offer both online and in-person classes in the fall — and about 45 actually never left because of the hurdles of traveling during the pandemic.

Colorado College’s campus in Colorado Springs in October 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“I think the group I am most worried about are the students who are going to be seniors this year,” he said, explaining that those students who opt not to return could lose out on an opportunity to secure a post-graduation work visa. “We’re not sure what options will be available for them if they graduate in May and they aren’t able to this (access this) program.” 

The guidelines, issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, provide additional pressure for universities to reopen even amid growing concerns about the recent spread of COVID-19 among young adults. Colleges received the guidance the same day that some institutions, including Harvard University, announced that all instruction will be offered remotely.

President Donald Trump has insisted that schools and colleges return to in-person instruction as soon as possible. Soon after the guidance was released, Trump repeated on Twitter that schools must reopen this fall, adding that Democrats want to keep schools closed “for political reasons, not for health reasons.”

“They think it will help them in November,” Trump wrote. “Wrong, the people get it!” 

Under the updated rules, international students must take at least some classes in person. New visas will not be issued to students at schools or programs that are entirely online. And even at colleges offering a mix of in-person and online courses this fall, international students will be barred from taking all their classes online.

The American Council on Education, which represents university presidents, said the guidelines are “horrifying” and will result in confusion as schools seek ways to reopen safely.

The University of Colorado system said it looks “forward to welcoming our international students back to our campuses.”

“We are working with our partner higher education associations and institutions to ensure that our international students can continue their educational journeys,” the system’s leadership said in a joint statement on Tuesday.

The Flatirons in Boulder are a backdrop to Baker Hall, designed in 1937 as a men’s residence on the University of Colorado. The dormitory, with its iconic red tile roof and Lyons sandstone walls, still houses about 500 students each semester. (Doug Conarroe, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado State University, which had more than 2,000 international students on its campus last year, said it’s still reviewing the new rules to understand their implications.

“Since CSU is planning for hybrid in-person instruction in the fall we are hopeful that our students’ ability to maintain their student visas will not be adversely impacted,” Kathleen Fairfax, vice provost for international affairs, said in a written statement. “However CSU is seeking clarification on several points in the guidance and we will update students when we have more information.”

The University of Denver said it, too, is reviewing the rules to see how it will affect its roughly 900 international students. 

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“The University of Denver’s doors are open to all international students and it will offer courses in-person and hybrid modalities and continue to celebrate the innovation, ideas and contribution of international students and their ability to compete with the best,” Uttiyo Raychaudhuri, vice provost for internationalization, wrote in a letter to students.

The announcement was the Trump administration’s latest pandemic-related strike against legal immigration. Last month, authorities extended a ban on new green cards to many people outside the United States and expanded the freeze to include many on temporary work permits, including at high-tech companies, multinational corporations and seasonal employers.

The administration has long sought deep cuts to legal immigration, but the goal was elusive before the coronavirus.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.