New ICE rules cause consternation for international students

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Photo by Kaity Chaikowsky.

On July 6, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rescinded exceptions for international students during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. For the Fall 2020 semester, international students must attend in-person classes or they face risk of deportation. 

This new ruling has massive implications for international students and is particularly relevant for the University of Dallas student body as Dallas becomes a hotspot for the coronavirus. 

According to a news release from ICE on July 6, if a school goes fully online this fall, its international students will not be permitted to enter or remain in the U.S. 

Students will have to transfer to another university that offers classes in-person or take classes online from their home country. 

The U.S. government made an exception for this spring and summer, permitting “nonimmigrant students to take more online courses than normally permitted by federal regulation to maintain their nonimmigrant status during the COVID-19 emergency.” 

Normally, international students are not allowed to attend “online universities” with an F-1 visa, but in this time of uncertainty, many in-person schools like Harvard have gone fully online, while other schools like UD may be forced to switch to an online platform mid-semester again.

There are approximately 100 F-1 visa-holding students from over 20 countries at UD, according to Breonna Collins, UD’s Director of Graduate Admission & International Student Services. 

“As the Principal Designated School Official for the entire university, I serve as the liaison between the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, ICE, DHS, and our students,” Collins wrote in an email. “I have served in this role for about five years, but this is the first time that the international student services community has seen such significant changes in the federal regulations we follow.”

Unlike these rules, most policy updates are announced months in advance, Collins explained.

Collins described UD’s safety plan for the fall as “exceptional,” but wrote that there would be several factors to consider if UD was forced to go online during the semester.

“At this time, no official guidance has been issued by ICE regarding this scenario,” Collins wrote. “I am closely monitoring all related updates and will be sure to inform all stakeholders as more information is provided.”

Collins encouraged concerned international students to reach out to her, and wrote that she was dedicated to informing students as more guidance became available.

“I know that our F-1 students are frustrated and concerned. I hear you all, and I will continue to

advocate for our international student population,” Collins wrote. “I am confident that UD Administration is dedicated to doing everything they can to keep our F-1 students on campus.”

UD Provost Jonathan Sanford described the influence of these new rules in UD’s ongoing decision on whether to remain in-person for the whole semester as “not dispositive, but certainly an important consideration.” 

If UD switched entirely to online classes during the fall semester, “the plan would be to continue to do what we did in the spring” to aid international students, Sanford wrote in an email. “We are grateful to the generosity of so many friends of UD which enabled us to provide the support we did.”

“Our position as a university is that we want to ensure that international students are given the support they need to study here, and should they be compelled to leave by outside authorities, then we will do what we can to bring them back,” Sanford wrote.

The new ICE policy comes at a time when many international students have been unable to return to their home countries, many of which have restricted travel from the U.S. due to rising infections here. According to Inside Higher Ed, around 90% of international students stayed in the US after their in-person classes went online. 

UD senior Michael Ewnetu was confused by the purpose of these rules, especially as it would deeply affect his future if UD suddenly went online as it did in the spring. 

“The new ICE rule came as a surprise to me,” he wrote in an email. “I honestly tried to understand the reasoning behind it, but I could not get it. I believe that laws are enacted in a good faith to keep the safety of the public. However, the new ICE rule seems to defy that as it causes unnecessary inconvenience. As an international student, it is my number one responsibility to follow the rules of the country. But the new ICE rule harms me more than it does good to others.” 

“Even though I really miss home, there is a lot to consider if I’ll have to travel back during a pandemic. I have to get an international plane ticket, set up my home for online class, and try to adjust for the 9-hour time difference,” Ewnetu wrote. “The new rule would also affect my plans for graduate school application, like taking the GRE and getting several mentorship opportunities.”

While international students struggle on an individual level with the consequences of the new rules, the rules also represent a significant financial loss to American institutions. If international students do not attend U.S. institutions this year, it could result in the loss of up to $41 billion for the U.S. economy, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. The U.S. hosted about 1.1 million international students in 2017, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

International students form a disproportionately high amount of tuition revenue, as they often pay nonresident fees without financial aid or other scholarships. In fact, the loss of this source of revenue may mean that colleges will have less money to award US students with financial aid, according to CNBC. 

Some universities may try to keep in-person classes, even while the coronavirus risks would otherwise deter it. This may increase the spread of the coronavirus, and will pack classrooms as international students must attend some classes in-person to keep their visas. 

UD sophomore Taylor Tran said there are losses beyond the dollars if international students cannot be a part of the community. “[International students] also provide different perspectives, different cultures, and the diversity that colleges desperately need, especially in times like this with the current [Black Lives Matter] movement,” she wrote in an email.

Tran explained that she is deeply anxious about the situation.

 “If UD were to go fully online, I don’t really have a choice whether or not to stay. The [ICE] policy requires us to leave the country or to transfer, but it is already mid-July and with the worsening situation of the pandemic, it is going to be extremely difficult to even find schools that offer in-person classes, not to mention the interruption in our academic process and risks that it poses to our healths,” she said. 

UD alumna Gretel Lim, B.A. ’20, focused on the repercussions of F-1 visas being delayed or denied for international students. “To punish students for something that is out of everyone’s control is cruel and blind,” she wrote in an email.

“For…the program that lets international students work off-campus and take internships… you need to accumulate at least 2 semesters full time of in-person class credit. But if you’re telling students they need to reapply for a visa, you’re basically saying they have to delay their path for at least a year,” Lim wrote. “And it’s a hefty sum you pay each time you apply for a visa. They interview you and ask how many times you’ve applied for a visa before, and they take that into consideration. So it isn’t just like an online form.”

Lim believes that this new policy may have political motivations to make schools stay open during the ongoing pandemic. 

“I think these rules are purely a political move to try and pressure schools. I mean there is talk of it being a way for the government to keep out [or] get rid of those who default on their student visas… but honestly like it’s just so awful,” she wrote. 

President Donald Trump has recently renewed his efforts to get schools to reopen in the fall amidst the coronavirus pandemic and has accused his political opponents of keeping schools closed for political gain, according to a U.S. News & World Report. 

Lim foresees policies like these creating more problems for UD in the future. 

A decline in the international student body “has been underway for some time due to national and international politics that are out of our control, and due to a global pandemic,” according to Sanford. 

“I think in times to come, schools, especially like UD, which are smaller will find it harder and harder to get any sort of international community,” Lim wrote. 

Lim also emphasized consequences of this policy beyond educational and professional aspects. 

“I think it’s sad and really really cruel that students were given all of days to react to their new policy,” Lim wrote. “It isn’t as simple as getting in a car and driving home. Some of us have half our lives halfway across the world and some of us have to deal with that now, like selling the cars we bought or the furniture we have in storage. It’s a huge mess, and for some odd reason we’re being made to pay a price for something none of us have control over.”

Tran described uprooting herself from her home in Vietnam to seek her college degree at UD. “I’ve stayed in the U.S. for 3 years,” Tran wrote. “I packed my bags, said goodbye to my old life, and went to this country with the plan of finishing my education here. This is my life now, America is my life now. I have no other plans besides getting my degree here. Leaving now and being denied re-entry means that I will lose my education, my friends, and basically my life.” 

For some students, these new rules seem to reflect not only on ICE or the Trump administration but indicate a loss of the mission and reputation of the US.

UD senior Eve Low has a green card as a domestic student, so she will not face deportation if UD switches to an online platform. However, as a student with international origins, she felt that the new ICE policy was deeply unfair for nonimmigrant students with F-1 visas. 

“I find it deeply disconcerting that America, the country that’s supposed to be known as the land of the free and the place where anyone can make their dreams come true, would deport international students for not attending in-person classes at a time when it’s dangerous to do so,” Low wrote. “For many, returning to their home countries makes online learning impossible and/or dangerous for the students. It’s frustrating to watch this country treat international students so unkindly.”

Tran expressed a similar sense of disillusionment with life in America as an international student, even while she hoped to remain and complete her education. 

“A part of me does want to leave,” Tran wrote. “To be honest, I’m tired. Tired of fighting every day to prove my worth, to fight against the possibility of being deported even when I’m here totally legally, to get the same opportunities that come much more easily to others, to finally be able to relax knowing that I’m finally where I’m accepted and wanted.”

Lim summed up these sentiments of disappointment for international students. “So many [students] uproot their lives and ship themselves across continents just so they have a fair shot at life,” Lim wrote. “They believe in the American dream and they want to live it. Isn’t that what America is supposed to offer? An equal opportunity?”

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