004 | Jamie Kanki | The Trump administration sends foreign students home

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

The Trump administration has reinstated the rule that forbids international students from staying in the US if they are taking online classes only. The rule had been relaxed in the spring because of the covid-19 pandemic. Now despite institutions such as Harvard planning to go entirely online in 2020-21, the US government is telling students they must be in the classroom or back in their country. I caught up again with Jamie Kanki to understand what that means for the more than 1 million international students in the US and their schools.


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[00:00:00] Jamie Kanki: [00:00:00] The staff and administration that we work with, I guarantee none of them slept last night.

[00:00:04]Isabelle Roughol: [00:00:04] Hi, I'm Isabelle Roughol and this is Borderline. I don't have a full length interview for you today. I'm working on a few things for the coming days, but I wanted to make an emergency pod to talk about something that went down in the U S yesterday. I've asked Jamie Kanki to come back and give us a quick update. I'll be honest. This episode comes from a place of rage. And I'll tell you a bit more about that later but let's hear from Jamie first .

[00:00:32] Hi, Jamie.

[00:00:35]Jamie Kanki: [00:00:35] Hi.

[00:00:36]Isabelle Roughol: [00:00:36] Twice on the pod in four episodes. Uh You're becoming a regular.

[00:00:42] Jamie Kanki: [00:00:42] I feel very blessed.

[00:00:44]Isabelle Roughol: [00:00:44] Um, Can you give me a bit of a summary of what it is that ICE just announced for international students in the US?

[00:00:53] Jamie Kanki: [00:00:53] Yes. So yesterday, SEVP, which is the student exchange visitor program, basically [00:01:00] adjusted their regulations. If you recall, earlier in the spring, when a lot of universities were having to close down, they made some exceptions for students who are currently here. They made some allowances for them to take courses online and things that normally under normal circumstances wouldn't be allowed. So essentially they're reverting back to the way things were. So they're basically saying that, um, . Uh, the students attending schools who are going purely online, completely online, um, they need to go home. They cannot enter the United States so that means incoming students who are coming in to attend those types of schools are not able to enter, they're not gonna able to get visas. And if you're already here in the States , and you're doing purely online, you're going to have to leave the United States.

[00:01:47]Um, The other thing that they said was basically that, you know, if you're going to a school um, that's offering a hybrid model this fall, a majority of your courses do need to be taken in person. Um, This part's a little bit vague. And I [00:02:00] think a lot of schools are waiting for a little bit more clarity on exactly what that means.

[00:02:03] The tricky part here, I think, is that SEVP has also stated if a school ends up changing to online classes in the middle of the semester -- so if we get a second surge in the middle of the semester, um, and the schools have to close down again, so we have another situation like we did in March, April, May this year -- um, that essentially the students will need to either leave the country or they'll need to transfer to another school who's offering in-person instruction.

[00:02:31] um, That's sort of the main thing. There's some issues with students who left, who left the country, understandably, this spring because of the pandemic. Um, There's going to be issues with them getting back. Or, you know, Their immigration status may be terminated uh, if the courses are not being offered in person or, you know,that kind of thing. So it's a mess.

[00:02:52] Isabelle Roughol: [00:02:52] So concretely, what are students, what do they have to do? Let's start with people who [00:03:00] are in the US right now and expecting to continue their education. And their school is going online only because we just heard that Harvard is going online only for all of the next school year, including 2021.

[00:03:17] Jamie Kanki: [00:03:17] That's right

[00:03:18] Isabelle Roughol: [00:03:18] It's not just a few people that we're talking about.

[00:03:21]Jamie Kanki: [00:03:21] It could be a very significant chunk of students. For students who are currently here. Um, they're going to need to be in touch with their designated school officers. Those are the people who sign off on their immigration papers. Um,T They're going to need to check in with those, with those people on their campuses to find out: is my courseload going to meet SEVP's requirements?

[00:03:42] And I say that with a small caveat of asking the impossible, which is for patience on the students' part. mean, you know, I know this is a scary time but these schools or the universities were just hit with this yesterday. So they themselves are [00:04:00] reeling from this information and trying to figure out what that means for each of their specific programs on their campuses, what they can do, if they can make any adjustments between now and August um, to meet requirements to make it okay for, I mean, Gosh, this is a really tight timeline, um, for answers.

[00:04:18]The schools are scrambling, undeniably. They're all scrambling right now.

[00:04:23] Isabelle Roughol: [00:04:23] Yeah. We're essentially talking about, five, six, seven weeks. The US administration is essentially telling a lot of people just go home.

[00:04:34] Jamie Kanki: [00:04:34] Go home. And can they, where can they go?

[00:04:37]Isabelle Roughol: [00:04:37] Right. And, and even if there aren't travel restrictions, It's pretty scary to fly right now. I could see how some kids would not want to.

[00:04:46] Jamie Kanki: [00:04:46] Yeah, it would be terrifying to fly and also expensive potentially. You know, the US is not running a lot of flights to a lot of places. Uh,

[00:04:55] Isabelle Roughol: [00:04:55] uh Yeah. I wonder what it means, you know, longterm for these kids' education? [00:05:00] Do people pick it up again if they've had to give it up for however many months or, or a year? There are times zones. There are you know are, you know, Not everyone has broadband back home to be able to attend classes.

[00:05:15]Jamie Kanki: [00:05:15] Yeah. That's exactly right.

[00:05:16] And I think, these are the things that weren't really thought about when making this decision. Or they didn't care. I don't know. There's a lot of speculation, as you can imagine, in the higher ed space, about this being the administration sort of forcing universities' hands. And the president's tweet last night that schools must open in the fall certainly, I would say, supports that theory.

[00:05:43] Isabelle Roughol: [00:05:43] Is it that the Trump administration wants to give the message that things are okay, things are back to normal and therefore the old rules apply again, when it comes to visas?

[00:05:56] Jamie Kanki: [00:05:56] I mean, I am not going to for a moment, pretend to [00:06:00] understand anything that comes out of them, but, um, but yeah, that certainly seems to be what the takeaway is, I think: um, basicallysaying, you know, if you don't open, we're gonna punish you by getting rid of your international students.

[00:06:12] Isabelle Roughol: [00:06:12] Right. And we talked about, the last time I had you on the pod, about, you know, how much international students mean to American universities. And so what does this decision mean for them, for their decisions for the fall, for their financial model?

[00:06:30] Jamie Kanki: [00:06:30] Oh, gosh. To put it into perspective last year alone international students brought in $41 billion. Um And that supports like almost half a million jobs in the United States -- a lot of which have been impacted by this already. You've got faculty and staff members on furlough and taking pay cuts and things like that all over the country already. And that was with the hope of things going [00:07:00] back to normal in the fall. It's a pretty dire situation for a lot of institutions.

[00:07:04]Readjusting your entire university's policy um to offer a handful of in-person courses, that's not a small thing. I'm just not sure how how they're gonna manage. I'll be incredibly impressed with any university is able to pivot in the short amount of time to sort of meet their student's needs. But I know they're all trying.

[00:07:26]Isabelle Roughol: [00:07:26] I wonder if they should even because if you're making a decision based on public health Um to go online only, you're doing it for a reason. And so essentially you have educators in a position to have to choose between the deportation or the possible illness or death of their students and their staff. That's a terrible choice.

[00:07:53] Jamie Kanki: [00:07:53] It's a terrible choice. There's all these things floating around, students saying like "If you have to sign a waiver for [00:08:00] your life to attend courses, is this is this really worth it?" There's universities taking out insurance policies. There's universities asking for government protection from lawsuits. Um What a wild crazy time! I don't envy students right now.

[00:08:19]Isabelle Roughol: [00:08:19] Yeah I wonder if there will, you know, there will be lawsuits. I mean the problem is, It is the rule right? You can't go to the US if you're just taking online classes.

[00:08:30] Jamie Kanki: [00:08:30] Yeah, it was always that way. You could always take like one class online Um but it couldn't be a majority. And it makes sense because you're here for an experience, not to sit on a laptop and do your coursework. I totally get that.

[00:08:44] Isabelle Roughol: [00:08:44] Yeah. And I can totally see how the system would be abused by fly-by-night schools that essentially are just selling visas. Um So it makes sense if it weren't for coronavirus, which is a pretty big "if".

[00:08:58] Jamie Kanki: [00:08:58] Right. That's a huge, [00:09:00] a huge if.

[00:09:00] Isabelle Roughol: [00:09:01] And I was just reading um actually that the Australian government is looking at doing the opposite -- and you can't accuse the current Australian government of being a wild leftist open borders kind of administration -- but they're actually looking at uh giving online students more rights, including post study work rights, in order to increase the appeal of Australian universities and bring those foreign tuition dollars to Australia. So there's competition and there there are countries adopting a very different approach.

[00:09:40] Jamie Kanki: [00:09:40] Absolutely. And Canada did something similar, counting those online courses and those years taken online counting towards um permits and things like that in the future. I hate to to call it opportunistic but they are making allowances where the United States is not, is actively in [00:10:00] fact doing the opposite.

[00:10:01] Isabelle Roughol: [00:10:01] So there's been quite a bit of backlash since this came out yesterday. Is there a chance that they back off, that this was just a you know poorly thought out, slapped together policy and with all the feedback that they got, things change? Or is this set and done?

[00:10:20] Jamie Kanki: [00:10:20] I certainly hope that it was done sloppily and that it can be walked back. Um there's some petitions already going around, there's a lot of pushes to call Uh your Congress people. I don't know how far reaching that is, I can tell you in my circles which is mostly higher ed people, it sounds very loud but I don't know if that's big enough to move a mountain here.

[00:10:43] Isabelle Roughol: [00:10:43] Well thanks so much Jamie for this update and making yourself available Um so last minute. Do you have parting words of encouragement for students?

[00:10:55]Jamie Kanki: [00:10:55] I would just say, if you're at a US institution right now, if you're [00:11:00] in the country or if you're back home and you're listening to this, I would say just: You couldn't have a better group of people working to advocate for you. Um Everything I've seen being done right now on behalf of international students, it's really moving. I don't know that it will be enough but I know that people are fighting for you right now.

[00:11:20]Isabelle Roughol: [00:11:20] Alright. Well we certainly will be um at least very vocal.

[00:11:26]Jamie Kanki: [00:11:26] I think that's the best thing that we can do right now.

[00:11:29] Isabelle Roughol: [00:11:33] Immigrants have always been an easy punching ball. In an "us versus them" world, "them", "we" can't fight back. If immigrants were a country, we'd be the fourth largest in the world, but we largely don't get to vote where we live. A constituency of 272 million people without representation.

[00:11:54] Kids had usually been spared from all that. After all they're not taking anyone's job. [00:12:00] And foreign students tend to spend more than they collect. But not anymore.

[00:12:05]I spent most of the day reading stories about how migrants have been treated in this pandemic around the world. And that's where the rage comes from.

[00:12:13]In the U S it's students, yes, but also workers on H1B and other visas. It's migrants foregoing their legal right to appeal and opting for deportation rather than risking death from COVID-19 in detention centers.

[00:12:33] In Singapore, it's migrant dormitories, where people are packed together and more than 90% of the country's COVID-19 cases have occurred. It's foreign workers losing their work visa and being deported within 24 hours for minor quarantine violations, when nationals only receive small fines.

[00:12:55] In Europe it's people stuck for days and weeks [00:13:00] on boats in the Mediterranean, driven to despair and suicide because no one will let them dock.

[00:13:08] In the UK, it's a bone-chilling story that came out this morning of sub contracted cleaners in the Ministry of Justice, all of them immigrants, forced to continue going to work during the lockdown with no protection, no instruction, no sick leave, even for those with symptoms, and no compassion. Two men died.

[00:13:34] Look, I'm agnostic about immigration levels. There is a reasonable case to be made, to have less of it. Listen to last week's episode for that.

[00:13:42]But what there is never a reasonable case for is treating people like dirt. People who have come in good faith to our countries. To study. To work. To sit our children. To clean the offices [00:14:00] of our very own governments. We have work to do.

[00:14:04] I'll link to all of those stories in the newsletter, you can subscribe at borderlinepod.com. Thank you for listening and I'll talk to you next week.


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Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.