Iowa universities condemn deportation threat to online-only international students

Administrators object to 'harsh and unnecessary guidelines'

Chinese international students headed to the University of Iowa in the fall of 2016 attend an orientation in China and f
Chinese international students headed to the University of Iowa in the fall of 2016 attend an orientation in China and form the “I” I-O-W-A chant. Leaders of Iowa’s three public universities this week condemned federal guidance that threatens international students with deportation if they’re taking only online classes in Iowa. (University of Iowa)

IOWA CITY — Although widespread confusion and unknowns persist across Iowa’s public universities for international students newly threatened with deportation if their courses end up entirely online — the institutions are promising support and collaboration in keeping those affected on campus.

“Because the University of Iowa has adopted a blended approach to instruction this fall — which combines both in-person and online instruction — the UI has flexibility in adapting to these circumstances,” UI International Programs Dean Russell Ganim said in a campus message this week about the new Student and Exchange Visitor Program guidance.

“As a result, the UI is committed to working with international students to find solutions to ensure that their fall programs of study are completed with minimum disruption,” Ganim said. “International Programs and academic units across the university will continue to offer all the services necessary to support our international students.”

Still, the UI — in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — recently announced plans to shift all courses online after Thanksgiving, which — under new guidance from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — would force students studying here on F-1 and M-1 visas to either leave the country or transfer to a school with in-person options.

And Michael Bortscheller, UI associate director of international student and scholar services, warned of that previously unforeseen threat in a separate message to affected students this week.

“Once the University of Iowa moves exclusively to online classes after Thanksgiving break, it may be necessary for international students to leave the United States,” Bortscheller wrote. “We are seeking further guidance on this point.”

Fall plans

All three of Iowa’s public universities are employing a hybrid model of instruction for fall — with campuses prioritizing in-person learning but keeping classes with enrollments over 50 online. That could mean, for some students, an entirely virtual semester.

In hopes of offering some degree of in-person learning for the entire term — while also avoiding high-risk Thanksgiving travel — Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa are beginning their semester early, Aug. 17, and end it before Thanksgiving.


The UI is maintaining its original calendar but wrapping the post-Thanksgiving portion of the semester virtually — complicating the outlook for its international students facing new federal mandates.

Bortscheller in his message noted new obligations the universities face — including that they verify each international student is taking a minimal number of online courses, as the government guidance states, “Students are required to take as few online courses as possible.”

“If all of your classes this semester will only be offered online, or if you choose to enroll entirely in online classes, you will be required to be outside the U.S. by the time classes begin in the fall,” he wrote. “In addition to this, (UI International Student and Scholar Services) will be required to end your current immigration record.”

‘Harsh guidelines’

Leadership across all three of Iowa’s public universities roundly condemned the federal guidance — which could further curtail dwindling international enrollment already decimated by unfavorable immigration policies and more recently by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Standing in solidarity with its international community, International Programs and the University of Iowa voice their objection to these harsh and unnecessary guidelines in the strongest possible terms and pledge to lend all the assistance and reassurance they can during these troubled moments,” UI International Programs Dean Ganim wrote in this message.


Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen, in a campus message this week, called the federal guidance “unwise.”

“We are deeply concerned that this policy creates uncertainty and anxiety for our international students, who are already navigating many professional and personal challenges as a result of the pandemic,” she wrote.

Although ISU doesn’t intend to move entirely online this fall, Wintersteen acknowledged that should it have to — due to worsening pandemic conditions — international students would be forced to transfer or leave the country.

“We are advocating for our international students to have maximum flexibility to continue their education at ISU as we prioritize health and safety during the COVID-19 crisis,” she wrote. “We value deeply the contributions of our international students, faculty, and staff who offer their diverse talents, skills, perspectives, and cultural vibrancy to our campus.”

‘Deeply disappointed’

University of Northern Iowa leaders are communicating with current and prospective international students but also with Congress “about our concerns with the impact this ruling will have on our students and university.”

“UNI is deeply disappointed by the federal government’s announcement that it will discontinue an online course waiver for international students that prevents deportation as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a UNI statement. “This decision sends the wrong message about the value international students bring to the university community and has added to the stress and uncertainty many of our students face.”


UNI aired concerns about long-term implications the guidance and follow-through could have on the universities and the country as a whole — particularly its esteemed system of higher education.

“Rather than risk our nation’s standing as a global leader in education by creating separate standards for international students, we should welcome the talented, dedicated people who choose to study here and who contribute valuable resources to our campus and community.”

Thousands Impacted

Although the universities haven’t released international student enrollment projections for fall — other than to warn they, like total enrollments, are expected to drop — the University of Iowa last fall reported 3,163; Iowa State had nearly 3,200; and UNI counted 385.

All those totals were down from recent years. In 2016, the UI had 4,300 international students; Iowa State reported more than 4,130; and UNI had 548.

Regarding the portion potentially affected by new guidance, UI reported 2,225 of its 2,656 enrolled international students in 2019 — excluding those in post-graduation training — were studying with an F1 status.

Given travel restrictions and other emerging barriers for international students, UI officials noted those who can’t get here or stay here can remain enrolled in the university via online courses.

Everyone loses

UI graduate student Monzer Shakally, a Syrian national in Iowa on temporary protected status through March 2021, said he started on an F1 visa and believes eliminating educational opportunities for international students will prove detrimental to the country and the world.

“One of the greatest things that this country has is its culture and its ideas, and when you have foreign students here in this country, they learn those ideas, they see the beauty in democracy, and they see free speech and its effects, and they can go back to their country and transform their culture and bring some of those ideas back,” he said.

“But right now we’re telling those people that they’re probably better off in their countries than they are here.”

Even Americans who are anti-immigration will be harmed by slashed international enrollments, Shakally said.


“This is going to do nothing but increase tuition for in-state and out-of-state residents,” he said, noting the steep prices many international students pay. “That’s a huge amount of money they’re losing from tuition.”

Now halfway through his UI dental program, Shakally acknowledged his temporary protected status expires before he graduates — but said he’s gotten familiar with feeling helpless.

“I’m not even shocked anymore at what I read — in terms of immigration.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158;

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.