ICE's new order against international students forces them to choose between their education and their health. Ava DeSantis speaks to international students about how they will be affected, what they want, and why they’re here.
On Monday, the US office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) modified immigration policy to ban F-1/M-1 student visa recipients from remaining in the United States, if their coursework will be completely online during the fall semester.
ICE policy temporarily loosened to allow students to take more online courses during COVID-19. Now, ICE does not factor in the pandemic as an obstacle for students and removes the flexibility given to students during COVID-19. In many places in the U.S., however, the COVID-19 outbreaks worse by the minute, not getting better. At the end of June, the daily number of new cases reported was the third-highest since coronavirus reached the U.S. at 34,720 new cases.
Foreign students obtain the F-1 and M-1 visas to study at American universities. The F-1 visa is for students in traditional programs and universities, and the M-1 for students of vocational programs.
According to the latest ICE order, students enrolled in a new online program must leave the country or transfer to a school that is offering in-person classes. The problem here, however, is that due to pandemic safety measures, many universities moved online already and cannot offer in-person classes.
Harvard and The Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a suit this morning, arguing for a preliminary injunctive relief from and a temporary restraining order against the new ICE policy. The brief cited similar concerns over ICE’s disregard for the safety and futures of international students. The order, wrote the plaintiffs, violates the Administrative Procedure Act by failing to consider “important aspects of the problem.”
The Massachusetts Attorney General announced her attention to sue ICE over the order, calling the action “cruel and illegal.”
The forcing hand of the Trump administration
The Trump Administration does not believe the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes enough of a threat to prevent schools reopening. The President repeatedly called for American students to return to schools. On Monday, Trump tweeted “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” despite the fact that America does not have the pandemic under control.
Moreover, Trump threatened yesterday to cut funding for schools that do not reopen fully in the fall. “The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election,” Trump wrote, “but [it] is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!”
Carmen Gros, an Australian student at George Washington University (GW), told The Pavlovic Today she believes the administration uses international students to pressure universities to reopen, instead of forcing international students to leave the U.S. The administration, she said, used the order “to pressure institutions to reopen in-person to show that COVID-19 is not a pandemic/national emergency.”
F-1/M-1 students outside the country, and solely enrolled in online classes, cannot re-enter the U.S. If students violate these new rules, they risk deportation or other immigration consequences.
International students rush to exchange online course registrations with in-person classes, in the fortunate cases where universities offer some in-person classes. Rhea Joshi, an Indian citizen and rising senior at the University of California, Los Angeles, seeks to swap for in-person classes. “There’s slim picking for classes,” said Joshi, “and they all filled up so fast once the news came out that we’re pretty much left with no option.”
The problem with the ‘hybrid plan’
Carmen Gros explained “this order narrows international students’ choices in terms of how they can approach their degree and education. While the media has been playing up students who may face deportation due to their institution being ‘online-only,’ it’s important to note how ‘in-person classes’ or ‘hybrid models’ will also affect international students, which applies to students at GW.”
George Washington University proposed a hybrid model for approval by the District of Columbia, which attempts to allow students to “attend virtually” while hosting some classes in-person on campus, and offering residential housing. At least 23% of American colleges and universities offer a similar, hybrid plan.
If students are outside the U.S. for more than five months, they must reapply for their Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, and repay the I-901 SEVIS fee in the application process. In a mid-June article, Christian Stuart, executive director of the Center for On-Campus International Student Services in the College of Education and International Student Services at Andrews University, reassured U.S. news outlets that this requirement relaxed due to COVID-19 related complications.
“Given the uncertainty that still exists, especially with the various travel restrictions and the temporary closure of U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, the five-month rule has been relaxed for the time being,” said Stuart. These allowances reversed, and students worry they will not be able to return to the U.S. for in-person classes.
Gros described how this reversal affected her. “In my case, I’m originally from Australia, but I currently am in the UK with my immediate family. The U.S. has banned a number of countries due to the coronavirus, including the UK (as well as China, and I believe the entire European Union). This means that I have almost no route to return to DC by August. According to the new rules, ICE has effectively removed the extenuating circumstances that allowed international students to pursue online courses back in the spring semester. Now, they have mandated that, in order to keep your visa status, even if your school offers a mix of online/in-person classes, you MUST return to the US. How do I do that, though?”
Gros has contemplated finding a route back to Washington by traveling through Canada. “With a ban in place, I would be forced to find a route through possibly Canada,” she said. “But, the reopening of the Canada-US border seems murky too. In a worst-case scenario, if I cannot return, and GW does not go fully online, I will lose my ‘active’ visa status, and possibly be forced to reapply for my visa, which is not going to be easy considering the closures of the embassies worldwide.”
The U.S. banned travel from 28 European countries, including the UK. Passengers from China and Iran and non-essential travel from Mexico and Canada face restrictions as well.
Immigration lawyer Greg Siskind created a database of international student experiences, as a result of the ICE orders. Emily Olafson, quoted in the database, is a Canadian student at Cornell. Olafson’s experience demonstrates another problem with the hybrid model. “Cornell plans to use a hybrid model until Thanksgiving and then switch to online classes,” said Olafson. “Will I have to leave midway through?”
Another student, commenting in the database and afraid to be named publicly, is from Saudi Arabia. Speaking on their behalf, a friend said “they will have to leave but [Saudi Arabia] declined a repatriation flight and the borders are closed.”
For Carmen Gros, the problems with the hybrid model are so severe, she believes GW and other schools should go completely online. “What should be done is that GW goes completely online. While I fear international students may be displaced and have to return home, there are many students who already returned to their home country back in March/April, and now GW’s hybrid system places them at risk for void visas,” she explained. “We should continue to petition and pressure ICE to let students remain in the country while schools go online. Hopefully, by doing both, we achieve the best of both worlds.”
“Where is the humanity?” asked Lydia Obi, a Nigerian student at GW. Mirroring Carmen’s concern over how she would travel to the U.S., Lydia worries how she would return home to Nigeria. “There are literally countries either still on lockdown or they’ve banned the countries. How are kids supposed to go back home if they physically can’t? Many of the international kids that stayed here didn’t necessarily stay by choice, they wouldn’t have been let back into their country, they’re literally kicking us out into the streets.” ICE’s order, under these conditions, betrays a “total vile and inhuman way of thinking.”
Fulfilling ‘America First’
Gros believes the Trump Administration is motivated by its ‘America First’ slogan, and the voters who support it. The order is “most likely to stop and hopefully prevent the influx of immigration to the US, which the current administration could use to show how they want to stop the spread of the virus, or to prove they are “America First.”
Elizabeth Goss is an immigration lawyer specializing in securing visas for physicians, researchers, trainees, and students in higher education and health care fields. Goss spoke to The Pavlovic Today about the new ICE order. “I have no doubt,” said Goss, “that this [order] was a direct aim at curbing international students both from trying to enter the US and also pushing them out.”
“The guidance itself advised students to transfer or leave if their institutions weren’t going to offer some in-person study,” Goss continued. “SEVP is encouraging self-deportation.”
Gros referenced the June 20th decision to suspend the H1-B work visa for skilled workers and managers, and Trump’s consideration of a Republican congressional push to suspend the OTP, as evidence for her hypothesis.
GOP congressmen labeled the OTP, a program that allows international students to remain in the U.S. for optional practical training, as allowing foreign students to “take jobs that would otherwise go to unemployed Americans.” Trump justified his decision to suspend the H1-B visa using similar rhetoric, calling the COVID-19 outbreak an “unusual threat to American workers.” Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden responded on Twitter, accusing Trump of making the decision to “distract from this Administration’s failure to lead an effective response to COVID-19.”
Immigrants, said Vice President Biden, “help grow our economy and create jobs,” and he believes Trump should cease his use of immigration as a scapegoat for existing problems. Lydia believes ICE is similarly fear-mongering over the effect on international students on the spread of COVID-19 on campuses.
Goss elaborated on the value immigrants bring to the American economy. “These are students who pay landlords for apartments, buy food in local shops, frequent local establishments, and are critical to our communities… One in six workers is an immigrant, filling a vital role in our country’s labor force. In 2018, these immigrant-led households across the United States contributed a total of $308.6 billion in federal taxes and $150 billion in combined state and local taxes.”
“I think for me it’s just the fact that [it’s a] very baseless argument. ‘Hey, act like international students are going to go wild if they’re not in school,’ and the fact of the matter is we are still in a pandemic. Even if we wanted to go ‘wild’ we literally, physically could not. Furthermore, a lot of international kids have been in the states since March and literally, nothing has happened, continued education, stayed in relatives’ homes, abused by the laws of the visa… There is quite literally no need to send us out.”
She also pointed to the hypocritical nature of preventing immigrants from entering the country, while absolving American citizens from these travel-related health concerns. “I can understand wanting to prevent people from outside the US to come in but there are Americans who are currently not in the country who would be returning for the fall,” she said, but “why can’t we all just get the same treatment? Instead, they’d be scrutinizing the international students.”
By forcing students who may already be in the U.S. to travel internationally, however, ICE forces students to “choose between [their] education and [their] health.” It’s “simply not fair,” said Lydia. This American education, Carmen explained, was already something international students worked towards, before this new and cumbersome policy.
“The process of obtaining a US visa and keeping it is always a difficult struggle, but we do it anyway because we yearn for an education unlike any other in a different country, she said. “The new ICE regulations plague that dream for many, and have influenced a number of my international friends, including myself, to consider a different avenue, possibly in a different country, to pursue our education.”
Goss, who spoke to many students currently coping with the new order, advises students not to panic. “Don’t panic,” she said, “don’t make rash decisions, there is the time right now to do some careful fact-checking and consideration of your current circumstances and talk to your international student offices — they are your best ally in this, and we — immigration attorneys are supporting them and your institutions.”
Beyond the “more heartfelt side,” Carmen encouraged the U.S., universities, and the Trump Administration to see “international students almost always pay tuition in FULL.” The order, she predicted, “will most certainly affect a university’s budget, particularly universities with low endowments.” The editorial board of the Charlotte Observer penned an op-ed harshly critiquing the order, and also predicting harm to university budgets. “[The order] also is bad for colleges and universities,” wrote the board. “[Colleges and universities] covet the out-of-state tuition that international students pay.”
The “more heartfelt side,” however, has a real impact on American universities. Consider this story, submitted to Siskind’s database by a prospective teaching assistant from Iran. “Please, please be my voice. I came to America on an F2 visa as my wife is a Ph.D. student in Washington state university.” The prospective TA had a placement last spring, but they did not grant her a visa in time, and she was unable to accept the position. She deferred until summer, but due to further immigration complications, she was still unable to accept the position.
They granted her a position again for Fall 2020, but now the university says they are not able to register her because of the ICE new rules. She continued, “so I lost my F2 visa, and I am on an F1 and now I have to leave America and leave my wife alone here.” She concluded “It doesn’t make any sense. What did I do wrong?”