Last week, when ICE announced that international students attending online-only U.S. colleges in the fall must either transfer to schools with in-person instruction or leave the country, Amr Mecca felt the fear and shock so many international students have been grappling with in recent days.
“I really felt like the rug was pulled from underneath us,” said Mecca, a student from Amman, Jordan, studying political science at Northeastern University under the F-1 visa. “It puts us in a very precarious situation, and I don’t think it’s fair because there’s not a lot of flexibility with these new rules by ICE.”
ICE’s move to bar international students under the F-1 and M-1 visas from the country if they don’t attend in-person classes has left those directly affected by the policy in limbo. The order rolls back a temporary COVID-19 exemption that allowed international students to take more online courses in the spring and summer than originally permitted by federal regulations.
Yet, the pandemic is not over, and those opposed to the recent announcement say that ending the exemption poses several consequences on the livelihood of international students who now face uncertain academic futures and greater health risks if forced to attend in-person classes.
Rebecca Buffham, 49, is originally from Australia but moved to the U.S. from France in 2017 following the deaths of her father and mother, and later, the loss of her sister to suicide. Her friends in Houston convinced her to move closer to them to seek mental health support, and once in Houston, she pursued her associate’s degree in studio arts under the F-1 visa at Houston Community College. She has one semester left, but ICE’s recent order means she may not get to complete it.
“I suddenly found myself without any tether to the world,” Buffham said about the deaths of her family members. “I felt like I was in a little boat tossed on heavy seas and there was no land in sight.”
For Buffham, her entire support network is in the U.S.
“I went through the process, enrolled in HCC, and it saved my life,” Buffham said. “I had all my friends around me who were a great support network, and I got psychiatric help here in the States.” If forced to move, Buffham said it would be “a matter of throwing a dart at the map of Australia,” a country she hasn’t lived in for 18 years.
As international students across the world wait for more detailed updates from their universities in the States about its plans to address ICE’s policy, they are filled with a sense of worry, confusion, and uncertainty.
“For me specifically, this country is the only home I have known,” said Radha Kanchana Karthik, a 2018 graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who moved to the U.S. from Chennai, India in 2003. “I have lived a good life, and I’ve done everything right. I have made good choices and tried to help those around me. I am trying so hard to contribute to this country. Why doesn’t it want me?”
After completing her bachelor’s in neuroscience and psychology, Kanchana Karthik was accepted to a clinical psychology Ph.D. program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She intended to enroll in classes in mid-August but with ICE’s recent order she is unsure if that will work out.
Those attending hybrid model schools like Mecca and Buffham can still take online courses but must also take at least one in-person class, which their colleges are required to certify to the federal SEVP to avoid their deportation.
But while Northeastern and other colleges like Rutgers, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania, are planning to move forward with a combination of in-person and online instruction during the fall semester, some students still don’t know whether their specific degree-requirement courses will be among the ones offered in-person.
“God forbid all my classes are online,” Mecca said. “I think that the university would extend its head but just that uncertainty is something that’s on the back of your mind.”
Against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s recent moves to restrict foreign work visas and suspend migration along the Mexican and Canadian borders, many are calling ICE’s order “xenophobic” and another example of the administration’s attempt to exclude non-U.S. citizens.
In a tweet on Tuesday, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said the policy was a “cruel and illegal” move on the part of the Trump administration and ICE to continue excluding immigrants. “Our state is home to thousands of international students who shouldn’t fear deportation or health risks in order to get an education. We will sue,” Healey wrote.
On Wednesday, Harvard, which recently announced its move to online-only courses in the fall, filed a lawsuit with MIT against the Department of Homeland Security and ICE, stating that “Universities and students have been planning the 2020-2021 academic year for months in reliance on ICE’s recognition that the COVID-19 pandemic compelled allowing international students to remain in the country even if their studies had been moved entirely online.” It adds that “ICE’s rescission of that recognition failed to consider numerous weighty interests, and is itself arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion.”
Some celebrities like Mark Cuban also pointed to the order’s irony, referring to a 2015 tweet from Trump where he wrote, “When foreigners attend our great colleges & want to stay in the U.S., they should not be thrown out of our country.”
Regardless of its irony, many international students are also worried that the order comes at the price of their physical health. Nearly 21,000 professors and students have signed an open letter calling for ICE to rescind their decision, while several other petitions have also been gathering thousands of signatures online and bringing attention to the heightened exposure to COVID-19 that international students could face if forced to attend in-person classes.
“I wonder if going back to campus will be safe,” said Oriana Mejías Martínez, a Ph.D. student with an F-1 visa at the City University of New York. “Will our health insurance cover anything if we get sick?” CUNY has not yet declared a formal operational plan for the fall term.
Martínez, who is originally from Venezuela, migrated to Chile in 2017 before pursuing her studies in the U.S. a year later. Even if she were to opt out of in-person classes out of concern for contracting COVID-19, the alternative of deportation may be just as dangerous. Not only would deportation expose her to international travel, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned U.S. citizens against, but borders across several Latin American countries have been closed due to the ongoing pandemic.
“I have few possibilities of flying elsewhere,” Martínez said. “The administration is blackmailing universities with international students’ lives and that should not be happening.”
On top of this, U.S.-issued travel bans on countries such as China, Iran, Brazil and several others, means international students from these areas cannot return to take in-person classes and protect their visas, despite the ICE order requiring them to do just that.
“For a lot of people, a lot of their hopes and dreams are based on [the F-1 visa],” Mecca said. “I think it’s harsh to send people back and treat international students like that, given how much we have riding on this education and this opportunity that’s been given to us.”