Anusha Deshpande thought she had it all planned. With a heavy course load in the spring and the summer semesters, the 28-year-old Karnataka native is just a course away from graduating with a Masters in Business Analytics from California State University, East Bay, in Hayward, California. But instead of being happy, Deshpande is worried. “We just want to finish the journey we have started,” she says. “Now there’s this sudden twist.” And uncertainty. Would her only remaining course be offered in-person, or would it be online? Would she have to go back to India?
Deshpande’s concerns stem from a July 6 announcement from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) which does now allow students on F-1 visas to attend schools which are operating entirely online for their fall semester.
As per the new rule, the U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States. Active students currently enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status. “If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to the initiation of removal proceedings,” ICE says.
However, students who are attending schools which are offering in-person classes, are bound by existing federal regulations. “Eligible F-1students may take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online,” ICE says. Those enrolled in schools which are adopting a hybrid model — that is, a mixture of online and in person classes — will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online.
With the new restrictions for international students, the ICE is rescinding the exception it made during spring and summer semesters when the universities and academic institutions were entirely operating in an online mode, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
International students like Deshpande, who chose to stay back in the U.S. after their colleges and universities went into an online teaching method since March, are now faced with the dilemma about their fall semester, depending on what their university choses. With the sudden change in the rule, they are now unsure of what the future holds, and they fear deportation.
So far, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rutgers University and the University of Southern California, have announced that the classes for the fall semester will be held entirely online.
Students are grappling with all kinds of scenarios and are looking at different options where they can adhere to the SEVIS order and also retain their I-120. In order to answer their queries, the North American Association for Indian Students (NAAIS) teamed up with the South Asian Bar Association (SABA) for a webinar. Some of the topics addressed were the ways in which an international student can take a reduced course load, or even take a semester off, and ways on how keeping the student visa valid.
Students attending schools that offer a mix of online and in-person classes will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online. However, the school must notify the U.S. government’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program or SEVP that the student’s courses are not completely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load and that he or she is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program, as per the new guidance. In order to stay in the U.S., the student must be taking a full course load, which varies by education level, and attend and pass their classes.
Students outside the U.S. for more than five consecutive months will need to obtain a new I-20, which is the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. They will also be required to pay the I-901 SEVIS fee again if their original visa is no longer valid. SEVIS, a web-based system, is used by the U.S. government to maintain information on international students.
Along with students, the announcement blindsided academic institutions grappling with the logistical challenges of safely resuming classes as the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge in the U.S. and other parts of the world.
Retaliation and Support
Will the new rule force schools to rethink their already carefully balanced plans and adopt the hybrid model? Will the foreign students be forced to take some in-person classes – despite the health risk – in order to come to or remain in the United States with their classmates?
Going by the recent developments, it would seem like the universities have their foreign students’ backs. Some have sought to take legal action. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit to lock the rule that would require international students to take at least one in-person class or be denied permission to study in the United States.
Attorney Neena Dutta says “the lawsuit is important as it shows there’s unrest in the college community, and that it is not going to tolerate the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant, anti-public health concerns, lying down.” The case will also set a precedent she says. Meanwhile, Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, has joined in the lawsuit with Harvard and MIT, and Princeton University has pledged its support as well. Similarly, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has sued the Trump administration seeking to block the rule.
In an email sent to American Kahani, Dory Devlin, senior director of University News & Media Relations at Rutgers, said the university “is still reviewing the proposed new policy to understand what effect it will have on our international students and to determine if our hybrid model for the fall semester will need to be modified in any way to accommodate our international students.”
Several schools, including the University of Connecticut, Michigan State University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and Miami University of Ohio, have altered the academic calendars for the fall semester that either ends or goes online by Thanksgiving. Sending students home early can help avoid the second wave of coronavirus cases.
Panic and Insecurity
Sudhanshu Kaushik, who heads the North American Association of Indian Students (NAAIS) told this writer that he got thousands of calls and messages in less than 24 hours from students and their families who are overwhelmed with what’s going on in the country right now. NAAIS estimates that there are currently 75,000 students who are still in the U.S.
Immigration attorney Sheela Murthy says she too has been inundated with multiple calls and consultations. “People are panicking with all the question marks,” she says. Several students this writer spoke to said that while they were learning to navigate through the pandemic, they are now faced with this uncertainty and confusion.
A lot of them, including Deshpande have lost part-time on-campus jobs that they depended on for additional income. “But despite that we are carrying on; we are paying rent, doing grocery,” she says, with no help from the government. “We are made to feel unwelcome here now,” she says, echoing the sentiments of international students.
According to the New York Times, for some foreign students, the U.S. is a safe haven “from conflict in their home countries and relief from infrastructure that cannot support remote learning.” The report quoted Ifat Gazia, whose hometown in Kashmir, has 2G internet service, “which makes it nearly impossible to make calls over Skype, let alone support the video that would be needed if she were to try to attend lectures via Zoom.”
Another student, Kunal Singh, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at MIT, told the Times that if he had “known that something like this would happen when I was applying to American schools, he “would have applied to Australia or Britain.”
Aid to Affected Students
Pie News reported that “the U.S. government has not provided students with a hardship fund, and instead, individual universities have been tasked with managing a response.” The report noted that along with the NAAIS, organizations such as the Institute of International Education have also been answering to calls to help international students. “The IIE is currently in the process of distributing $1 million to aid 300 students in the U.S. in dire need of support, having already committed $1m to help hundreds of international students caught in the crossfire of the pandemic,” the report said.
While students like Deshpande opted to stay back, those who could afford the last minute flights before India went into lockdown, returned home. Others went around July 8, when the new round of repatriation flights to India began. One of them is a 19-year-old sophomore from New York’s Parsons School of Design. The Pune native, who chose to remain anonymous, decided to go back after his school announced an online schedule for the fall semester. Although the new visa rule was not a factor in his going back, he said “Trump’s mandate was surprising.”
There were other factors like lack of accommodation that prompted some students to go back. And given the uncertainty, they said they would rather be home and wait it out than be in a foreign land. Digvijay Singh, a junior majoring in Computer Science at Deanza College in Cupertino, California, headed home to New Delhi on July 8. Singh said his lease ended and he didn’t have a place to stay. And given that his college hadn’t still announced a plan for the fall semester he decided to leave. His return will depend on his college’s decision.
For students who are here in the U.S., it’s all about playing the waiting game. Deshpande says when she hears from the university, she will figure out her next move. She has emailed her professors, directors and head of departments and is hoping for some clarity soon. “If yesterday hadn’t happened we were speculating that classes were online,” she told this writer, referring to the July 6 ICE notice. “Summer has been online too.”
Divyesh Parekh, who is pursuing his Masters in Electrical Engineering Management at California State University, East Bay, is a little more hopeful than Deshpande. “Right now students association members and officials are working on a solution to find a way around the current ICE guidelines,” he said. “They are going to help us international students and mostly propose a system to let international students continue to stay on campus.”
Vishnu Shukla, a sophomore at the University of New Mexico lucked out. His university is offering a hybrid model, he said, which will enable him to attend classes online and in-person. This arrangement is particularly beneficial to STEM students like Shukla who need to have practical classes as well as lab time.
Benefits of International Students
Experts believe that the new visa restrictions will not only cause problems for foreign students, but it will increase the economic pressures colleges and universities are facing due to COVID-19. “All universities are hurting now,” Immigration attorney Murthy notes. “And one cannot forget that these international students pay a full tuition.”
Additionally, many international students are employed as teaching assistants or research assistants, contributing to the research and innovation at universities, which often lead to the discovery of patents and large-scale research findings which generate millions of dollars in scholarly grants and endowments.
Shereen Bhalla, director of education at the Hindu American Foundation said the new rule is “an irrational political decision that puts students at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 during an already stressful time in their lives.” In a blog on the HAF website she wrote: “This mandated guidance from ICE is forcing universities to hold in-person classes sooner than it is safe to or risk losing tuition from international students, which is often almost double than what U.S.-based students pay, not to mention the billions of dollars they contribute to the U.S. economy.”
Kaushik is of the opinion that Indian immigrant students “are political scapegoats for a political narrative.” Describing Indian students as being resilient, he said he’s confident “they will continue to wait it out and adapt.” The visa restrictions implemented by the Trump administration, Kaushik says are “degrading,” as “this nation has progressed to new heights because of the immigrant students,” a significant part of which are Indian. “They have impacted each sphere — be it economic, education, political or social.”
Referring to the Trump administration’s earlier mandates on H-1B visas, Kaushik said, “Since March, there has been systemic attacks on immigrants. They have been berated, one way on the other.”
Last month, Trump issued an immigration proclamation curtailing legal immigration to the U.S. His order specifically targets H-1B and H-4 visas, which are primarily used by workers in the tech industry and their families. The order also halts the issuance of L visas, used for intracompany transfers, and J visas for seasonal work like camp counseling and study-abroad programs. Trump also extended a ban on applications for green cards till the end of 2020.
“The administration is now going after the children, who are contributing millions of dollars,” Murthy says. “He is messing up children’s education, and putting his anti-immigration rhetoric into high gear and using the pandemic as an excuse.”