Staff Columnist

Trump lets states manage COVID-19, unless there are foreigners involved

The problem with a one-size-fits all policy for the whole country is that it ignores local needs and conditions.

President Donald Trump listens during a
President Donald Trump listens during a "National Dialogue on Safely Reopening America's Schools," event in the East Room of the White House, Tuesday, July 7, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

President Donald Trump decided early on to let anyone but him manage the COVID-19 response. Now he’s finally taking national action, but it’s all wrong.

Because of the pandemic, foreign students enrolled at U.S. universities will have to return to their home countries if they are taking online-only classes in the fall 2020 semester, according to a policy announced this week by federal immigration enforcement officials. With college plans in flux, students and college administrators are scrambling to figure out who’s allowed to stay and who has to leave.

“Because of the complicated nature of this guidance, we cannot give one single piece of advice to every student,” University of Iowa leaders wrote in a notice to international students.

It’s a disappointing but unsurprising development from the Trump administration, which consistently erects barriers to international workers and scholars, never mind the fact that states such as Iowa desperately need them.

Look past the xenophobia, disrespect for human freedom and ignorance of workforce dynamics, and this is a classic case of big government maladministration, by a president who loves big government and maladministration.

American colleges’ return-to-learn plans vary widely. Even among Iowa’s small public universitiy system, the plans differ — Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa plan to start early and end the semester before Thanksgiving, while UI will keep its usual academic calendar in place but pivot to online-only after Thanksgiving.

All three Iowa universities plan to use a hybrid of online and in-person coursework, but those plans will be subject to change throughout the semester depending on pandemic factors. It’s impossible for any administrator or student to say for sure how they will be taking classes in October.

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If colleges hope to safely maintain some in-person instruction this fall, they will have to get creative with online supplements, staggered scheduling and a willingness to adapt on the fly. But that leads to more instability for international students burdened by an arbitrary requirement to take in-person classes throughout the semester.

Not only are international students required to enroll in in-person classes, they have to take the “minimum number of online classes required” and file new immigration paperwork to confirm their status, according to ICE’s guidance. It’s more government red tape in pursuit of a goal that’s not worth pursuing.

The problem with a one-size-fits all policy for the whole country is that it ignores local needs and conditions. The United States has more than 4,000 institutes of higher learning, enrolling nearly 20 million students, about a million of whom are international students. They need flexibility to respond as they see fit.

Defenders of Trump’s pandemic response understand this. That’s why they advocate against federal mandates and in favor of local decision making, selectively at least.

With his latest immigration stunt, Trump is committing a typical central planner’s folly — what hubris it takes to suppose politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., can protect the health and prosperity of about 320 million people.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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