Despite the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) decision to rescind their July mandate barring international students from attending American colleges if their courses are entirely online, students from around the globe are still faced with uncertainty and approach the new academic year with apprehensiveness.
On July 8, two days after the ICE policy was implemented, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and 200 other schools including the Ivy League, sued the Trump administration. The federal government repealed the new rule, which would’ve affected over a million international students.
Since then, ICE revised its policy so international students registered for in-person or hybrid courses will not be at risk of deportation if their schools move all classes online later in the fall semester.
ICE’s policy came under fire both domestically and abroad. When asked to describe his initial reaction, Shotaro Kajiura, a rising senior at Berkeley College in New York, said “It was shocking. I couldn’t believe what they were doing to us”.
Kaijura, an international student from Japan, plans to return to the U.S. in late August to attend his one in-person course, but for students like him, sudden immigration policy changes can create major disturbances to their academic lives.
“Even though the ICE’s announcement was rescinded, [there is a] fear that it could change again and get complicated,” said Gigi Rodriguez, an international student from Panama and rising senior studying at a 4-year university in Massachusetts.
Universities struggle with slow visa processing
The COVID-19 pandemic has already caused significant changes to higher academia, and the new regulations added another challenge for American universities as international students seek assistance with their student visas. While some colleges are responsive and provide regular updates, others are understaffed and fail to respond to students in a timely manner.
Kajiura said his school didn’t effectively communicate with their international students prior to shutting down, forcing him to contact his academic advisor and complete the visa process on campus before returning to Japan.
Many schools have on-call advisors for international students in urgent need of help. But Rodriguez noted that line at her school is often busy, citing her experience waiting on hold for four hours just to speak to her advisor for 20 minutes.
“[It] was also very frustrating because I didn’t know how to move forward with renewing my visa and…they really set me back a lot with that,” she said, adding that the international student services office took more than two months to respond to her email asking about her visa renewal process.
The alternative to weathering the visa process and studying in America is to take online courses from home during the semester. However, in exchange for not having to deal with inefficient international student services offered by schools, students are sacrificing on-campus life.
“It’s very unfulfilling to take the classes online just because it’s not the same experience,” said Rodriguez, who ultimately decided to take a gap semester. She remarked that the costs of taking online courses remained relatively the same regardless of being on-campus or not. “It’s also quite unfair that they’re requiring us to pay the same amount of tuition online as if it were in person, even though we’re not using facilities,” she said.
Making a home away from home
Some students decided to stay in the U.S. by choice, but others cannot leave or return to campus due to travel restrictions.
“International students from Europe couldn’t go back to their home because the situation was worse there,” said Kajiura, who was able to go back to return to Japan while some of his fellow international students were forced to find new housing in the U.S.
Rodriguez was in Europe for a study abroad program when her school closed in March.
“The housing situation has been a mess, especially with the ICE notification coming in,” she said. Rodriguez has rented an apartment near the campus, adding she had to choose between staying nearby or pay full rent if she leaves the country
For Sebastian Galleguillos, a PhD student in New York, balancing life in America while staying updated on the spread of coronavirus in his home country of Chile is a priority for him.
“It was really stressing me out”, he said, adding fearing that some of his family members back home may be infected because of the virus has rapidly spread in Latin America. He is especially concerned about his father, whose age puts him at a higher risk of catching COVID-19.
Higher education officials commit to supporting international students
Despite students’ frustrations, university officials are confident they are working hard enough to accommodate and assist the international student community. A MIT News Office spokesperson, Kimberly Allen, said the school provides constant updates for its international students through email and on its website.
“…… Representatives with MIT’s International Students Office aim to provide both broad guidance to our international student community and personalized outreach on individual student concerns as they arise,” she wrote in an email.
As it stands, ICE states that international students who were enrolled in classes at American schools on March 9 “likely remain eligible” for a visa to take full online courses in fall but advise newly enrolled students to stay in their home country.
Professional staff and faculty alike are cognizant of the impact of ICE’s policies on the future of higher education, with many showing support and solidarity for international students.
She emphasized that freshmen are at the highest risk of dropping out of colleges, and ICE’s policies will cause detrimental long-term effects on the classroom environment.
Changes in ICE policy only further the importance of international students attending American institutes of higher education.
“For our international students, and thus for all of us, this comes as an enormous relief”, stated MIT president L. Rafael Reif in regard to the recent update.
“It’s deeply encouraging that this case has inspired so much reflection about and enthusiastic recognition of the vital role international students play in academic communities across the United States – and absolutely at MIT,” he added.