With the start of the fall semester right around the corner, a new federal guideline issued in the United States could see thousands of international students forced to leave the country—or barred from entering—if their university decides to offer classes in an online-only format.
Many universities, including the likes of the University of Southern California, UC Irvine, and Harvard, are currently planning to move some or all of their coursework online in the fall in hopes of stemming the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 131,000 people in the U.S.
But under the controversial new immigration guideline, issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Monday, international students must take at least some of their courses in person in order to remain in the country. What’s more, if a university offering in-person classes switches to an online model during the semester, it must alert the government within 10 days and international students there will then have to leave.
The rule change has the potential to affect many of the more than one million international students who study in the U.S. each year, raising fresh financial, academic, social, and psychological uncertainties for students in what has already been an unnervingly uncertain time.
Tanzi Sakib, Bangladesh, Yale University
When one of his friends first sent him a link to the new directive, Tanzi Sakib thought it was a prank. Since finding out it was indeed legitimate, he’s felt frustrated, dismayed, and angry.
“I tried to think of any potential motive behind this new rule but couldn't, and still can't,” he told VICE News.
Over the last 24 hours, Sakib has made phone calls to multiple U.S. senators and congressmen of both parties, but nobody could offer him a proper explanation.
Sakib grew up in a small village in Bangladesh without access to reliable electricity, let alone steady broadband. “Whatever mobile internet we do have is inadequate even for streaming YouTube, how am I supposed to attend Zoom meetings?”
Finances, meanwhile, are a huge consideration, he said. With few good work opportunities in his village, and the possibility that Yale will not let him work remotely—not to mention the added expense of flights and likely having to rent a place in the capital—being forced to go back home could be an unmanageable financial strain.
Yvette Yao, Philippines, UC Berkeley
Unlike some international students, Yvette Yao was able to secure a flight back home before it became too difficult to do so. Weighing the likelihood that campus would be a ghost town—not to mention the sharp increase in U.S. COVID cases, racially motivated attacks, high healthcare costs, and protests against face masks—she decided early on that she would feel unsafe returning to the United States for the fall semester.
“From the president’s rhetoric, it is clear that he prioritizes America and does not see himself as part of the larger world... At the end of the day, I don’t have much power in a country where I am not a citizen,” Yao told VICE News.
With the last-minute rule coming only a month before the fall semester begins—and in the midst of a pandemic that has complicated every facet of life—international students have been left with little flexibility.
“It seems that the ruling is just choosing to make life difficult for international students, no matter what position they are in,” she said. “I had already gone through great lengths to find a way to get out of my lease, move my stuff out of my apartment without being in the country, arrange to back out of U.S. health insurance, and make sure that all my classes are online so that I could study remotely. Now, I have to figure out how to find housing again one month before school starts. I also need to somehow find a lease that is flexible to being terminated early.”
The ruling may also force some to take in-person classes they may not be interested in just to stay in the U.S.
“Worst of all, it forces students to enroll in classes that put them at greater risk for contracting the virus by being in a room full of students. We should be able to choose whether or not we want to attend in-person classes and accept that risk. We should not be forced to decide between our health and our studies,” she said.
Okubo Takahiro, Japan, San Francisco State University
Since the end of the spring semester, when his school informed him of a possible update on fall student visas, Okubo Takahiro has been obsessively checking ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program website.
When the new announcement was made yesterday, he was shocked, reading the subtext as “almost all international students should get out of this country.” He sees it now as “xenophobic harassment” without a logical rationale.
Now Takahiro may have to move across the world, and take classes remotely with a 16-hour time difference between California and Japan. “It’s almost night-shift life,” he told VICE News.
What he’s most worried about, however—even more than the time difference or abruptly having to pack up his whole life—is when he might be able to reenter the United States. The difficulty of getting back is why he decided not to leave during the pandemic this summer in the first place.
“I’m an art major and came to the U.S. to learn to make artwork. I don’t want to imagine that I wouldn’t be able to go back to the studio for more than a year,” he said.
Eddie Lok, Cambodia, Shoreline Community College
Eddie Lok always knew he wanted to obtain a degree in graphic design from the United States. Now, that dream is on hold.
“Immediately after I heard the news [of the rule change] I went into a state of anxiety,” Lok said. “We are all at risk of being deported back to our country.”
Having lived in the United States for three years working towards his degree, now everything seems much less certain—including “friendships, the life I've tried to build up for myself, and my chance for a brighter future.”
All his school was able to tell him, Lok said, was to wait for more information.
He’s since been raising awareness of petitions going around, and encouraging everyone to spread the word about international students’ risk of deportation.
Nhi Nguyen, Vietnam, Cascadia College
“Most of us come to America to pursue our own version of the American dream, but only to learn that this country is not as supportive toward foreigners as it seems to be,” Nhi Nguyen said.
Nguyen was slated to become Cascadia’s social issues and inclusion coordinator for the next school year, but now, “instead of planning my future, I need to worry about how to not be deported.”
She also noted that many international students from Asian countries had been harassed or violently attacked during the pandemic “because many racist people said that they brought the virus over, or they were the virus.”
“America is no longer foreigner-friendly,” she said.
“I'm going to be straightforward about this. In my humble opinion, the current administration of the United States has shown a lack of boundaries on its cruelty toward foreigners. They are hiding their xenophobic agenda behind a pandemic and it needs to stop,” she added. “Our American dreams are being postponed indefinitely. I am not staying silent, so everyone, do not stay silent.”
“Shutting America’s doors”
While international students have always been limited as to how many credit hours they can take online, exemptions to that rule were made for spring and summer terms as the COVID-19 outbreak worsened.
Now, returning to the old policy with the virus still very much uncontained, said University of Denver associate law professor César García Hernández, “assumes that the world has returned to the place that it was in before the pandemic. And that is patently not accurate.”
“The new rule is very much in line with the Trump administration’s position that the pandemic is not all that significant,” Hernández told VICE News.
“And also, it’s in line with the administration’s willingness to make life more difficult for migrants of all types in the United States,” Hernández added.
Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a group that advocates for international students, told VICE News that ICE directive is not simply shocking, but punitive—both to international students and the campuses seeking to support them.
“The policy is not rooted in evidence-based decision-making, and flatly ignores the urging of individual institutions, higher ed leaders, students, and many groups that have called for continued flexibility throughout this pandemic,” she said.
This decision is just one in a series of actions damaging the United States’ reputation as “the prime destination of global talent,” she added. The overall message, she said, is that international students are not welcome—“shutting America’s doors to innovation exactly when we need greater, not less, scientific innovation and economic contributions.”