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Pictured in this Gazette file photo from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs’ 2019 fall commencement ceremony in December, Anod Alhazmi graduated with a doctoral degree in engineering. She was one of a record 1,068 students to graduate in the fall semester.

Colorado has joined 16 other states and the District of Columbia in a lawsuit that seeks to overturn a new federal directive that would revoke the visas of international college students who take classes entirely online for the fall semester.

In Monday's announcement about the litigation, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser called the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement rule issued last week an “abrupt reversal” that sends a message that is “wrong, counterproductive and illegal.”

International students are being told to return to their home countries or not enter the U.S. for the fall semester if they are attending colleges and universities that resume classes online only because of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction to stop the Trump administration's advisement, challenging what the attorneys general call the federal government’s “cruel, abrupt and unlawful action to expel international students amidst the pandemic that has wrought death and disruption across the United States.”

As of January, there were 11,316 students in Colorado who could potentially be impacted by the new ICE policy, if the campuses had to revert to remote learning for all students, said Megan McDermott, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

While most colleges in Colorado are planning to combine in-person instruction with online classes for the fall semester, all international students could be impacted and forced to return home if schools were ordered by Gov. Jared Polis to provide online-only education at any time during the academic year, like they were in March, she said. 

Though international students study at campuses across the state, the majority attend the University of Colorado at Boulder, Colorado State University, the University of Denver and the University of Colorado at Denver, McDermott said.

“We do not yet know full impacts on fall, just as we don’t know the impacts with regard to domestic students,” she said in an email. “There are too many uncertainties.”

While many international students who were attending college in Colorado last year have stayed here through the pandemic, not all have.

“We don’t know how many new freshmen will enroll, nor if they will actually be able to get a visa and travel to the United States,” McDermott said.

Colorado Springs colleges go the extra mile to make students living on campus during pandemic feel at home

The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs is anticipating a 21% decrease in international students for the fall semester, said Chris Valentine, assistant vice chancellor of marketing and communications.

Foreign student enrollment is expected to be 160, he said, down from 202 students in the fall of 2019.

The natural graduation cycle is one reason, Valentine said. Another is that 30 international students returned home in the spring as the pandemic began spreading and are prevented from returning by travel restrictions in their native countries.

The Asian continent produces the most international students studying in the U.S., according to the newly released “Future of International Education Report” from Western Union Business Solutions.

International students comprised 1.7% percent of UCCS’ fall 2019 enrollment of 12,197.

In comparison, international students represented more than 9% of last fall’s enrollment at CU Boulder.

While schools are still solidifying plans for fall, UCCS is preparing to deliver one-half to two-thirds of its classes in-person and one-third to one-half online, spokesman Jared Verner told The Gazette earlier this month.

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Colorado College, a private liberal arts school in Colorado Springs with about 2,200 students, expects fall enrollment of international students to be flat, said spokeswoman Leslie Weddell.

It had 176 students on an academic student visa last school year and is anticipating 173 for the fall, she said.

However, that could “change greatly,” Weddell said, due to visa delays and travel restrictions.

Campus leaders will determine the composition of a hybrid, face-to-face and online classes model by the end of this month or early August, Weddell said.

Officials representing 180 institutions of higher education have joined the litigation and filed an amicus brief in opposing the Trump administration’s international student policy.

Weiser said guidance issued March 13 recognized the pandemic, provided flexibility for schools and allowed international students with visas to take classes online for the duration of the emergency.

The ICE policy change announced July 6 “gave no notice that international students can no longer live in the United States and take all of their classes online during the pandemic,” he said, “upending several months of careful planning by Colorado colleges and universities to limit in-person instruction in favor of remote learning and adapt their coursework for the fall semester.”

Colorado College’s acting co-presidents Mike Edmonds and Robert Moore were “disappointed and angered,” they said in a letter sent to students, parents and alumni, adding that such changes are “inappropriate and prejudicial to the international student population.”

“International students are vital to our mission and community as an institution, and to the diversity, creativity and quality of our country,” a statement from the school said.

UCCS Chancellor Venkat Reddy, who began his academic studies in the U.S. years ago as an international student from India, also does not condone the advisement.

“We are working urgently to ensure that international students are enrolled in at least the minimum number of in-person classes required by the new guidance,” Reddy said in a letter to students.

He also recommended that international students not make any sudden decisions about their career paths or academic careers.

International students “enrich our campus communities and enhance the diversity of the educational experience for all our students,” said a statement the CU system president and four campus chancellors issued. 

Leaders of Colorado campuses, including Colorado College and the CU system, said in a letter to lawmakers being sent Monday that the new policy “deprives our institutions of the flexibility necessary to make responsible decisions about reopening safely in ways consistent with our academic missions, student bodies, and campus and local public health environments.”

They urged that “Congress ensure that the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State allow any international student with a valid visa to continue their education regardless of whether a student is receiving his or her education online, in person, or through a combination of both, whether inside or outside the United States, during this unprecedented global health emergency.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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