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Some Penn professors are offering in-person independent studies to protect international students from the risk of deportation under new ICE guidelines.

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Penn professors are suddenly finding the fate of their students’ futures in their hands as international students desperately search for in-person courses to protect them from the risk of deportation under new United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement guidelines

ICE is mandating that international students under F-1 or M-1 visas be barred from entering or staying in the U.S. if they are not taking any in-person courses during the fall 2020 semester. The announcement arrived just days after many universities announced plans for a hybrid semester, like Penn, or an online-only model in efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.  

Prior to the release of the new guidelines, many faculty members expressed opposition to in-person learning due to concerns about contracting COVID-19. Now, as Penn prepares to help international students fulfill all of the necessary guidelines to maintain valid immigration status, some faculty are taking it upon themselves to offer in-person courses.

Perelman School of Medicine assistant professor Gary Weissman tweeted on Wednesday morning that he would sponsor an independent study for any international student at Penn who needs to take an in-person class to remain in the U.S.

“In the small sphere where we do have power, it's an ethical obligation to reflect on that power that we have and use it for the good both of individuals and students who are part of our academic community,” Weissman said.

Cognitive Science program director Charles Yang, who is a professor of psychology, computer science, and linguistics, said he would guarantee an in-person component to his fall independent study course to help protect one of his students from the new federal guidelines. Yang added that the student, who is from the Philippines, emailed him in a panic on Tuesday in search of confirmation that at least one of his fall courses will proceed in person next semester. 

Philosophy Politics & Economics associate director Jonathan Anomaly said the PPE department is searching for alternatives such as reclassifying virtual courses as voluntarily in-person, with the expectation that nobody ever attends. PPE is Penn’s largest undergraduate major consisting of nearly 400 students, 20% of whom are foreign nationals, Anomaly said.

Anomaly said his initial reaction to the new restrictions was to assume ICE made a mistake.

“My sense is they probably didn't understand just what the implications were, how devastating this is going to be for so many schools,” he said. 

Anomaly said the Trump administration may have issued the restrictions as "a populist move to potentially get some votes" and "divide people for political reasons." Regardless of the government’s intent, Anomaly said ICE's decision was "an obviously stupid move.” 

Weissman said the ICE announcement is consistent with the history of various restrictionist immigration policies advanced by 1968 Wharton graduate and President Donald Trump's administration, as well as the administration's attempts to pull national attention away from its failure to control the pandemic still raging in states across the U.S. 

“This is just an unsurprising play to distract and rile up and encourage xenophobia and racism,” Weissman said.

Many top universities have publicly denounced the new guidelines.

On Wednesday, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued ICE and the Department of Homeland Security over the new restrictions, seeking to prevent them from enforcing the policy. Penn, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, and Princeton University have since announced they will file an amicus curiae brief in support of the lawsuit filed by Harvard and MIT.

"We will work through the courts and with our elected officials to reverse this misguided decision," Penn President Amy Gutmann wrote in an email to the Penn community on Thursday.

Yang added that he supports the University's decision to approach the regulations through a legal angle. 

“I hope our students are well treated regardless of their nationality, and they can have faith and affection for the semester,” Yang said.

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