Williams condemns ICE guidance on international student visas

Williams students, faculty and staff,

On Monday, ICE (the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) announced a new federal guidance that will prohibit international students at American colleges and universities from returning to or remaining in this country if they’re enrolled in an online-only curriculum this fall. In short, under this guidance, any international student not taking at least one in-person course will be forced to leave the country.

We—President Mandel, Dean Sandstrom and Associate Dean of Students/Director of International Student Services Pretto—are writing, first, to express our support for and absolute commitment to international students at Williams and around the country, and to deplore this shameful policy; and, second, to share what we know about the guidance so far and help students understand the options.

Given frequent, harmful changes in federal rules governing international travel and immigration, we first want to say to our international students and families: you’re valued members of our community and we’re going to fight for you. A lawsuit has already been filed to block implementation of the guidance, and Williams will sign the amicus brief supporting that legal action. We’ll also redouble our own efforts to advocate for your ability to live and study in whatever location best supports your comfort, safety and learning. This includes work through the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, of which Williams is a member.

In regards to practical information, here’s what we know so far, informed by consultations with legal counsel, peer schools and consortia, and agency liaisons. We advise all international students and families to contact Ninah to discuss your individual situation and options.

If the guidance is enforced as issued, first-year incoming students unable to secure a visa due to the worldwide suspension of U.S. visa services, or due to travel bans or restrictions, will be unable to enter the U.S. If you’re an incoming first-year student in this category, your options will be to enroll in classes remotely from outside the U.S. or to take a gap year.

Incoming students with an F-1 transfer (e.g., those who attended a U.S. high school and already hold a valid U.S. visa) and returning students with F-1 visas will be able to study on campus this fall as long as you take at least one in-person course. You may not live on campus and take all remote courses. And you unfortunately won’t have the option of studying remotely from within the U.S., including in off-campus housing in Williamstown. If you’re an international student in one of these two categories, your three options will be to enroll in classes in-person, study remotely from outside the U.S., or request a leave.

If you choose to study remotely from outside the country, we’re working to confirm whether you’ll be able to maintain your F-1 status during that period of time. Unfortunately, the government’s statements on that point have been inconsistent, so we’re seeking clarification and Ninah will keep you informed.

Another set of concerns has to do with study away. If a returning student wishes to study away and is able to find an in-person program at this late date, Ninah will work with you to get it approved. You’d enroll concurrently, as during non-pandemic semesters, and would be able to maintain your F-1 status. Note that first-year students aren’t permitted to study away in their fall semester.

If you’re an international student hoping to study in the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford (WEPO), please contact Ninah and Director of International Education and Study Away Tina Stoiciu to consider your options.

All of the above information is of course subject to change as the guidance is revised and subjected to legal challenges. The ICE leadership rolled out the guidance quickly, without inviting input from schools. The document was arguably intended primarily as a political signal, with little attention paid to actual details or impact. The Student and Exchange Visitors Program (SEVP), which is responsible for managing the relevant programs, claims that it could be revised on the basis of institutional feedback, and Williams plans to advocate forcefully for our students, conveying to SEVP staff and our Congressional delegation the policy’s harmful, unjust impact of this policy.

In the meantime, we also have to think about how the guidance would affect our students if implemented. We’re currently pressing for answers to many as-yet unanswered questions, including how the policy might apply once Williams and other schools move to all-remote courses after Thanksgiving. We’ll circulate a form this fall that students can use to ask to remain on campus after Thanksgiving and during winter break, F-1 status permitting.

Ninah will also partner with faculty to make sure our in-person courses have enough openings to accommodate any F-1 students who want them, and to plan ways to help eligible F-1 students get back to campus, possibly including early arrivals. We encourage all international students and families to talk to Ninah about these matters. And of course you can turn for support to the Davis Center, the Chaplains and Integrative Wellbeing Services, among other college resources.

There’s an overt tension in this message between our personal outrage at the way the United States government is treating international students through this policy, and our institutional responsibility to help everyone adapt to it, if it goes into effect. We want to pause at this moment to again lament the callous and politicized nature of the guidance, and to emphasize that we and many other Americans reject the government’s poor treatment of international students, immigrants, visitors and guests.

Students, you belong here. We and our colleagues will continue to advocate for you, doing everything we can to help you participate fully in this learning community, and honoring the commitment that Williams made when we proudly admitted you.

Maud S. Mandel, President, Professor of History; Program in Jewish Studies
Marlene Sandstrom, Dean of the College and Hales Professor of Psychology
Ninah Pretto, Associate Dean of Students and Director of International Student Services