Gemma Potter hit her breaking point in early February.
After six months of being told she couldn’t come to America, the Australian basketball player, a key member of UCLA’s 2020 signing class, accepted defeat. So Potter, a 6-foot guard known for knocking down long-range shots, decided she’d forgo a college education in the states – and NCAA eligibility. Instead, she’d turn pro in her home country. It’s not what she wanted, but it seemed like her only option.
Her teammate Izzy Anstey, another Aussie stuck in Melbourne, is holding out hope. She’s had her bagged packed for months, waiting. As soon as Anstey gets clearance, she’ll be on a plane to Los Angeles. Potter will be staying behind.
“I hear people say ‘Oh, it’s just basketball, it’s just athletes wanting special treatment,’” Potter said from Melbourne. “But for us, basketball is our life. I haven’t figured out my identity outside of basketball yet. I wanted to do that at UCLA.”
It’s not a problem unique to Potter, Anstey or other athletes: for thousands of other first-year international students who hope to study in the U.S. for the 2020-21 academic year, time is running out. That’s because the Department of Homeland Security and ICE aren’t allowing first-year international students to come to the U.S. if their schools aren’t offering in-person courses.
Since the pandemic started almost a year ago, guidance on Student and Exchange Visitors Programs has been all over the map. As COVID wound its way across the U.S., DHS said it was fine for international students to attend college in the U.S. completely online. With the pandemic raging in July, Trump officials reversed course, declaring that international students must attend class in-person or leave the U.S. Universities revolted. A lawsuit led by Harvard and MIT forced DHS to relent, but only for returning international students. That left first years – some athletes, many not – stranded around the world.
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In October, Potter, Anstey and 14 other athletes who are supposed to be participating in sports at either UCLA or Loyola Marymount University, from countries including Australia, Norway and Britain, filed a lawsuit against DHS and ICE.
The suit contends that in late July, DHS-ICE reversed a previous July 6 order from President Donald Trump that banned most international students — and for the first time, issued guidance which barred first-year international students if they enrolled in 100% online courses. If the initial order was reversed, the suit argues, first-year student-athletes — who participate in daily, in-person practice — should be allowed in. Though the athletes were approved for their student visas, their certification forms were deferred, leaving them in a lurch.
The next court date is set for Monday, Feb. 22, when a federal judge will decide whether or not to dismiss the case. If the case continues, so does the fight to get into America.
DHS and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.
For UCLA coach Cori Close, it’s a layered issue: Her team, currently ranked No. 8 in the country, needs roster depth. She’s stressed about personally letting down families she made promises to in the recruiting process.
But in the big picture, she worries about the consequences of losing a class – or two or three – of international students across higher education.
“If we’ve learned anything in this country in the last nine months, it’s that we are desperate for healing and bridge building and diverse perspectives that increase our empathy and compassion,” Close said. “How do we do that without international students? They are the heartbeat of cultural growth. We are missing out if we don’t let them in.”
A boon to U.S. economy
International students are hugely important to the U.S. economy in myriad of ways, said Gaurav Khanna, an economist at the University of California-San Diego. They funnel millions of dollars into the academic system, as most pay full tuition rates (international students account for about 5% of students at American universities and colleges, according to NAFSA, the association of international educators). NAFSA estimates that in the 2018-19 school year alone, 1 million international students were responsible for contributing an eye-popping $41 billion to the U.S. economy.
Public universities in particular, many of whom have seen state funding cut — and raised tuition prices in response — need money from international students.
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“Especially when state budgets are plummeting because of our current economic crisis, we need international students’ money more than ever,” Khanna said. “So exactly when we need it most, we’re restricting it. That’s not good.”
According to the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks enrollment data, international student enrollments have dropped substantially, by almost 15% and are the only student group that experienced declines in graduate enrollment, dropping by almost 8%. But that might be lowballing it.
Kirk Pasich, the lawyer representing the student-athletes, and his firm estimate there are roughly 200,000 total (non-athlete) first-year international students locked outside the U.S. because of DHS guidance. At UCSD, Khanna and colleagues calculated that between March and September 2020, the U.S. granted only 37,680 student visas — a staggering decline of 87% compared to the average of 290,000 visas the last two academic years.
Contributions from international students are felt long after they obtain their degree, too.
Many stay in the U.S. after graduating, feeding into professional STEM programs, making valuable discoveries in the technology and health care sectors — two areas, Khanna pointed out, that have proven to be hugely important over the last year especially. Losing that pipeline could have decades-long consequences.
At UC-San Diego, international students make up almost one quarter of the university’s student population. That number hasn’t dropped significantly according to Dulce Dorado, the director of the International Students & Programs Office, but it’s hard to know the actual, physical location of students because they self-report: some are on campus, some might be in other U.S. locations and some could be stuck in their home countries.
It’s not just DHS rules holding them back, either. The pandemic has forced closures everywhere, including at U.S. embassies. And for those who can’t get a visa appointment, getting an actual visa is nearly impossible.
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Many , including Khanna, Close and Pasich, are optimistic that President Joe Biden’s administration will be friendly to immigrants, especially after four years of hostility from Trump. There’s a chance DHS amends the rules in time for Anstey and other student-athletes to join their teams for the tail end of their seasons. And if schools return to in-person classes by fall — a likely scenario given vaccine availability — that will also mean first-year internationals will be allowed.
But there are still issues, in both the immediate and long term.
Julie Myers Wood ran ICE from 2006-08, at the end of the George W. Bush administration. She’s now the CEO of Guidepost Solutions, a firm that works with universities to make sure they’re in compliance with federal regulations regarding international students.
Wood has been consulting with Pasich on the case involving the UCLA and LMU athletes, and empathizes with students who she said are “getting caught up in government bureaucracy and regulations that aren’t designed to handle something like a pandemic.”
And Wood wonders what happens during the next crisis? In the same way that the attacks of September 11, 2001 exposed dangerous gaps in the student visa program — some of the terrorists involved got into the U.S. on student visas, then never showed up for class — the pandemic has exposed other issues. Wood said higher education needs to be ready.
“Schools, universities and others should recognize that the U.S. government will never be the most nimble,” she said. “So right now they should be asking themselves, what if we’re in remote-only learning for years? And what about the next time?”
It’s the government’s job to examine serious security threats in a thoughtful and careful manner, Wood said. But the government should also be encouraging “the best and brightest, the most talented students from everywhere to come to the U.S. versus Canada or some other place. It’s in our national interest to have them come to the U.S.”
Dorado at UC-San Diego said the pandemic has made clear that “we’re a global community, we’re all interconnected and we need to work together to solve the world’s problems – international students are a big part of that.”
But Khanna, her colleague at UCSD, wonders if the damage has already been done. It’s not just about this class of first-year students; acceptance letters will start arriving soon, and students all over the world will decide their futures. He’s worried that given the rhetoric of the last four years, they might not be looking toward America.
“One thing the Trump administration made clear is how arbitrary immigration policy can be,”Khanna said. “If I’m thinking of coming here as a student, I see that Biden is in power now but by the time I graduate someone else might be in power — and that person might be much more anti-immigrant.”
Potter, who fell in love with UCLA the second she set foot on campus, said the situation doesn’t make her hate America. If anything, she understands the need to be safe: Australia has been in a strict lockdown since COVID hit. But even if the restriction was lifted next week, Potter said she had to move on for mental health purposes.
“I tried so hard to stick it out,” she said. “The uncertainty around school, basketball and life in general, it was so hard. Having clarity is amazing. But I know the other people in this lawsuit are struggling. Waking up every day wondering if there’s going to be a hearing, or a decision, it’s horrible.
“I’m content with my decision, but college was always a dream for me.”