APS Stands With International Students Studying in the United States

ICE’s policy changes draw fierce opposition from scientific community, are quickly reversed

Proposed changes this summer to US federal immigration policies cast widespread uncertainty among international students in the US planning to take online courses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. After fierce opposition from the scientific and university communities, including APS, the government’s plans were quickly dropped. Here is a brief recap of the issue.

On July 6, 2020, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that it would end temporary exemptions to online learning requirements as part of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), which would have forced international students to take in-person instruction at their universities to meet immigration visa requirements. The ICE announcement led to uncertainty for international students studying in the United States, who worried whether they would be able to continue their education as universities move to online learning for the fall semester.

APS wrote directly to ICE expressing strong opposition to the proposed change. In its letter, APS emphasized that the threat of COVID-19 has not passed and that forcing students to attend in-person classes would risk their physical and mental health. APS emphasized that psychological science is a global enterprise, and that the scientific community benefits from the freer flow of ideas; ending these exemptions for students would stifle potential scientific discovery.

APS also joined with the broader scientific community in signing on to two additional letters condemning the move. Some universities, including Harvard and MIT, even sued the administration. (Harvard is one of the universities that will be delivering all classes online for the fall 2020 semester.)

ICE’s plan meant that students under some visas would not be able to continue studying at their US university if it moved to full online teaching in the fall due to the coronavirus pandemic. Students enrolled in universities planning for a hybrid model, offering some classes in person and some online, would be able to continue studying at their universities if they could take the necessary number of in person classes. International students were concerned about enrolling for in-person classes because of the anticipated limited availability and capacity of these courses. International students would be competing with US students for in person instruction, but for international students failure or an inability to enroll in time would risk compliance with visa requirements. ICE recommended as one solution that international students transfer to schools that offered in-person classes to stay compliant with their visas.

These proposed changes triggered great concern in the academic community about requiring international students to risk their health amid the pandemic to attend in-person classes. As of July, the number of cases in the United States continues to increase (per CDC data for July 8-14, 2020), with new hotspots for the virus emerging and many states halting reopening plans. The worsening public health crisis, combined with ICE’s announcement, have created an impossible situation for international students.

As APS noted in its letter to ICE, National Science Foundation data show that between the years of 2000 and 2017, over 4,100 individuals on temporary visas received their PhD in psychology in the US, highlighting the importance of international students to the advancement of global psychological science. According to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, the US has a talent gap when it comes to the scientific workforce; students from abroad should be encouraged to study in the US, not turned away. Further analyses show that science and engineering PhD students in the US on temporary visas tend to stay at least 5 years after they obtain a degree, continuing to contribute their skills to the workforce.

In response to the overwhelming opposition, ICE dropped the planned changes to exemptions on July 14, only 8 days after they were announced—a cautiously positive outcome for advocates who organized and responded quickly to address the issue.

As the world continues to deal with the effects of COVID-19, fostering a strong scientific workforce in the US and abroad becomes more important than ever. Psychological scientists have much to contribute to understanding how behavior can mitigate the effects of COVID-19, and the global nature of the science will continue to be important for shaping best practices and policies moving forward.

Click here to view the APS letter to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  


Alvarez, P., Shoichet, A.E. (2020, July 7). International students may need to leave US if their universities transition to online-only learning. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/06/politics/international-college-students-ice-online-learning/index.html

American Association for the Advancement of Science (2020, July 14). United States drops visa restriction on foreign students attending remote classes. Science. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/07/us-drops-visa-restriction-foreign-students-attending-remote-classes?

CDC [@CDCgov]. (2020, July 16). As of July 14: In the last 7 days, #COVID19 cases increased nationally with 3 states each reporting more than 50,000 new cases. Twitter. https://twitter.com/CDCgov/status/1283732816421965824/photo/1

Fischer, K. (2020, July 8). As MIT and Harvard Sue, Colleges Scramble to Respond to New Federal Policy on International Students. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/As-MITHarvard-Sue/249142

National Science Board. (2019). The Skilled Technical Workforce: Crafting America’s Science & Engineering Enterprise. Retrieved from: https://www.nsf.gov/nsb/publications/2019/nsb201923.pdf

National Science Board. (2020). The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2020. Retrieved from: https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsb20201/u-s-and-global-education

National Science Board. (2020). Higher Education in Science and Engineering. Retrieved from: https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsb20197/international-s-e-higher-education#tableCtr1554

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (2020, July 6). SEVP modifies temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students taking online courses during fall 2020 semester. https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/sevp-modifies-temporary-exemptions-nonimmigrant-students-taking-online-courses-during

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