Creating hurdles for international students only hurts the U.S. | COMMENTARY

International students will be forced to leave the U.S. or transfer to another college if their schools offer classes entirely online this fall, under new guidelines issued by federal immigration authorities. The guidelines, issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, provide additional pressure for campuses to reopen even amid growing concerns about recent spread of COVID-19 among young adults.

Following fast on the heels of last month’s ban of H1B visas that has crippled our ability to recruit and keep the best talent from abroad, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has also announced that international students will be unwelcome in the U.S. if they are enrolled in universities and colleges that choose for COVID-19 safety reasons to host courses exclusively online.

The ICE student ban makes no sense from the perspective of public health, the economy, American competitiveness and basic decency.


From the public health perspective, the student ban targets young men and women who pose no more health risk than their U.S. counterparts. The situation is not one of students traveling from afar during a pandemic. The large majority of current international students are already in the country. Having recognized the likely impossibility of international travel during a pandemic, many wisely self-isolated at their U.S. universities after campuses shutdown in March. In fact, international students likely pose less of a health risk than their domestic classmates since, having no family here, most have not traveled since the shutdown. Furthermore, as many schools rely on tuition from international students, some may be more likely to force in-person classes to avoid the student ban, even if those classes are unsafe. In this way, not only does the ICE student ban have no public health benefit, it may very well do harm as schools reluctantly reopen in places suffering from recent surges in COVID-19 cases.

In looking at the economy, there are more than 1 million international students in the U.S. Baltimore is a college town, and among our vibrant student population, there were about 4,800 international students at Johns Hopkins University in 2018, according to one survey, and 1,010 at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. There are about 900 at Morgan State University and 400 at Towson University, according to their websites. All told international students contribute over $40 billion dollars to the national economy. The majority of them pay full tuition and, therefore, subsidize the education of their U.S. classmates. Since 2015, these ambitious international students have begun going to other countries besides the U.S. in larger and larger numbers. And the student ban will only make this worse. As international students consider where to apply this fall, it probably already has.


When it comes to American competitiveness, we must realize that the U.S. does not have a monopoly on talent. To create the world’s best technology, best literature, best science and best policies, we need to draw on the broadest range of people. The intrepid students who come to the U.S. are some of the most driven and brilliant the world has to offer. Many stay in the country after graduation, bringing diversity of experience and helping turbocharge the institutions of our society. Many return to their home countries with close ties to the U.S., a source of diplomatic strength for our nation. Additionally, U.S. students greatly benefit from being part of a community with their international peers. To draw an analogy to sports, you don’t improve by being the best person on the B-team. If U.S. students aren’t exposed to the best the world has to offer, they will not realize their full potential.

Finally, the ICE student ban is cruel. These talented young scholars have joined our communities. Prioritizing their education and our academic institutions, they have self-isolated here, most continuing to participate in research and coursework over the summer months. At the Johns Hopkins Department of Physics and Astronomy where I work, international scholars are an essential part of the faculty, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and undergraduate students. Many of the faculty and postdoctoral researchers themselves obtained their degrees in the U.S. Together, we have weathered the COVID-19 storm so far. Remotely we’ve come up with new theories and analyzed data from the farthest reaches of the universe. Safely we’ve rebooted laboratories probing the fundamental behavior of matter.

While Johns Hopkins has recently released careful plans to hold on-campus classes in the fall, inadvertently giving our junior colleagues cover from the ICE student ban, these plans could change as COVID-19 cases surge across the U.S. If that painful turn came to pass, the damage to our community would be profound. Even if our on-campus plans hold, the Trump administration has already told the best and the brightest young people from around the world, the international students who enrich our city: you are not welcome.

Tobias Marriage ( is an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University.