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US tells foreign students with online classes to go, universities look at options

The ICE directive, issued Monday US time, applies to the F-1 non-immigrant visas for academic work and M-1 non-immigrant visas for vocational coursework.

Written by Karishma Mehrotra | New Delhi |
Updated: July 10, 2020 2:33:49 pm
US tells foreign students with online classes to go, universities look at options Schools such as Harvard, Princeton, and Georgetown have already announced mostly remote-learning semesters. (Gretchen Ertl/The New York Times)

IN A SHOCK to international students studying in the US, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has come out with a directive saying they won’t be allowed to be in the country if their Fall classes are moving entirely online. Any person entering the US or staying there in violation of this can potentially be deported.

While the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted academic calendars, students had been hopeful as the ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program had earlier allowed foreign students to stay in the country to finish their spring and summer courses online.

Mahi Luthra, a PhD student in Cognitive Science at Indiana University, had chosen to do online-only courses in the Fall as a “safer option” but is now in a limbo living in the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the world.

Explained | How US govt’s new guidelines for foreign students affect Indians

“I am tired of Trump’s tantrums. This is just his way of forcing universities to open for Fall, which is counterproductive to COVID spread. I would honestly much rather be at home in India right now. I am just staying in the US because I’m constantly worried about each new move Trump will take. It’s annoying that I am struggling so much to remain in a country which I don’t want to be in right now and which seems to not want me either,” said Luthra, who is from Mumbai.

The ICE directive, issued Monday US time, applies to the F-1 non-immigrant visas for academic work and M-1 non-immigrant visas for vocational coursework. It requires school officials to issue new visa forms by August 4 and to submit operational plans by July 15 if they are online-only and August 1 otherwise.

Schools such as Harvard, Princeton, and Georgetown have already announced mostly remote learning semesters. Now, it is up to the universities to decide whether they would allow in-person courses, even if limited, to help international students stay in the country. The ICE press release also suggested students consider options such as “transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status”.

Several institutions immediately emailed their students indicating that they would make sure they meet the requirements. “I think it’s an unfortunate ruling by ICE,” said Brent White, University of Arizona’s Vice Provost for Global Affairs. “But it is what it is and we will do what we need to do. We will ensure that international students, including students from India, will have in-person options on campus even in the semester ends up online … I’m sure international students are looking at the situation and assessing whether they want to stay here or not.”

Faculty similarly immediately reach out in support. MIT Political Science Professor Vipin Narang told the Indian Express: “There’s always been this concern about these online-only, for-profit, F1 scam businesses. But this directive seems a little more carefully crafted to target institutions like MIT. If all they want is some in-person component for online classes, I’ll be happy to do that. If this targets legitimate students in legitimate institutions, then any loophole that would allow faculty and institutions to make a class ‘hybrid’ would be exploited.”

UC Berkeley students started a Google sheet to help international students swap with an American student’s in-person class. Petitions circulated to stop the #StudentBan, a play on a similar hashtag following the Trump administration’s plan to ban immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries.

A little over 46,000 F-visas (which include students’ family members) were issued to Indians in 2019, roughly 11% of the total 3.9 lakh such visas issued that year, records of the US State Department show. Among the total 9,500 M-visas last year, 714, or 7.5%, went to Indians. Indians on F-visas and M-visas amounted to almost 5% of all Indians on non-immigrant visas in the US in 2019.

The move comes on the heels of the US blocking the entry of those on H-1B visas. Soon after this ICE order, the US President’s social media posts read: “The Democrats don’t want to open schools in the Fall for political reasons, not for health reasons!” and “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!”

“This could be a coercive attempt to get institutions to open up. It’s cruel to use international students as a pawn. Does this administration really want to go to war against all higher education institutions? Institutions like ours are dependent on revenue from international students,” Narang said.

An undergraduate student from Mumbai at the University of Berkeley said,

“The US government is making students pick between their health and their education, which is despicable.” Students scrambled on Monday to find information from International Office advisors. “They also had just learned of the news the same time as us. They have no answers,” she said.

An Indian student at the University of California, San Diego, said: “This is likely to cause an insanely large number of students to return home all over the world, which is extremely irresponsible of the States since it’s the most severely affected country as of now. If they want fewer immigrants, there are better ways… If it’s not safe to attend classes in person, how is it safe to fly home?”

Saying the experience had soured the American dream for her, she added, “Most of my friends are considering options beyond the States.”

“As someone who studies international education, I worry that this will cause lasting damage to the relationship between US higher education and students around the world,” said Michigan State University Professor of Educational Administration Brendan Cantwell. “It is a political play.”

US Immigration Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute Sarah Pierce said: “The administration’s new changes pressures students and universities to favor in-person classes before it may be advisable to do so for health reasons. There is no obvious, legitimate reason for the administration to make this change.”

There were around two lakh Indian students in the US in 2019, surpassed only by China, according to a report by the US-based Institute of International Education (IIE). International students, often not on financial loans, contribute around $45 billion, it said, citing the US Department of Commerce. This sum helps the American government subsidise much of the fees for its own students.

The ICE move has been opposed by high-level officials, with US Senator Elizabeth Warren calling it “senseless, cruel, and xenophobic” and former UN Ambassador Samatha Power describing it as “needlessly cruel.”

Saying international students are “hanging by a thread”, Delhi-based Ankur Dua, who is in the second year of his Masters in Business Administration course at the University of Massachusetts, said, “We knew what we were getting into when we came to this country. We knew who was in power… But now we have seen first hand how this administration operates.”

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