(Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash)

Ngoc Dinh was still considering her options for the fall academic semester when Immigration and Customs Enforcement left her with no choice. 

A July 6 announcement from ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) states that students on F-1 and M-1 visas will not be allowed to remain in the U.S. if their schools go completely online. This would affect both students who remained in the U.S. to complete their spring 2020 semester online, and those who came back to their country in mid-March. If schools decide to go with a hybrid or in-person model, students who want to stay must take at least one in-person course to keep their student records with SEVP active.

Those who want to take a full load of online courses must leave the country or face immigration consequences. As a result, SEVP will terminate their student records in the system, making it more difficult for them to return later or to qualify for internships and jobs. If schools don’t offer any in-person courses and students still want to stay, they will have to transfer to other schools that offer such classes. Furthermore, if schools decide to go online-only at some point during the fall semester, students will also have to leave.

Dinh returned to her hometown of Hanoi, Vietnam, just before the country closed its borders in mid-March. Now that the coronavirus situation in New York is improving, Dinh was hoping she could go back to finish her master’s degree in business analytics at Fordham University. Dinh has just one class left before she can graduate; she was planning to take it online and spend time exploring job opportunities by applying for the CPT/OPT work authorization, which requires her to be present in the U.S. 

A day after the ICE announcement, Dinh was puzzled that Fordham still hadn’t put out a statement to explain what this would mean for students. “I haven’t seen any [statement], which is kind of disappointing because […] we have this program—it’s 85 percent international students,” she told me on Tuesday afternoon. 

Dinh is not affected by this new regulation from a visa perspective since she applied and got her new student visa just a couple weeks ago. She can still enter the U.S. as normal with both her new visa and additional paperwork that’s forthcoming from Fordham to prove that she’s not taking all online classes in the fall.

Unfortunately for many others, especially those studying in states where cases are going up, they will have to think twice about returning. “There’s this ongoing fear […] that there’s going to be a second wave,” Dinh said. “It’s already happening in other states, so I guess it’s kind of like the silver lining that New York is doing pretty well. But to say if I were a student in Florida or in Georgia, I would have a lot of concerns and I would be feeling very unsafe to return to that state.”

Many universities in New York are still working out the specifics of reopening under this new set of restrictions.  

New York University— whose journalism institute produces Bedford + Bowery—released an update for international students early Wednesday, explaining how students can plan in light of the school’s plan to go hybrid. “Requiring international students to maintain in person instruction or leave the country, irrespective of their own health issues or even a government mandated shutdown of New York City, is just plain wrong and needlessly rigid,” read the July 7 statement from NYU’s president, Andrew Hamilton. “If there were a moment for flexibility in delivering education, this would be it.” Columbia University, which is also adopting a hybrid approach for the fall, put out a response that echoed that sentiment. Meanwhile, the CUNY system has yet to comment on the ICE announcement.

Also on Wednesday, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the Trump administration over the SEVP’s order. But knowing how slowly lawsuits make their way to court, students and experts alike are saying schools need to take actions that will have a more immediate impact to minimize the disruptions caused by the new SEVP rule. “Regardless of the lawsuit that will be incoming, schools’d better have a good strategy in place for communications and accommodations for students to make sure that they are protected, at least for the time being and for the fall semester,” said Sophie Nguyen, a higher education policy analyst at the D.C.-based think tank New America, where one of the authors of this piece previously worked.

When the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus crisis a pandemic back in March and campuses across the country were forced to shut down, many students saw no option but to go back to their hometown. For international students, however, it was not that simple. For many, traveling back home meant dealing with travel restrictions, having classes in different time zones, and exposing themselves to the virus during several hours-long trips – in addition to the uncertainty of whether they would even be allowed to re-enter the United States.

New York City has the biggest international student rate in the country, many of whom decided to stay even as the city became a coronavirus hotspot. “I definitely considered going back home because a lot of my Chinese classmates were doing that,” said Wenze Zhang, a master’s candidate in Psychology at NYU from Xian, China. “But I also considered how my academic life last semester would be. I would have classes at 6 a.m. or 4 a.m. in China. That would be such a torture for me.”

Zhang said he doesn’t feel safe returning to in-person classes but, in light of the new ICE resolution, has decided to attend them anyway. “I also don’t want to be expelled and just waste my money for online courses,” he said. 

Juliet Huang, from Changsha, China, just graduated with a master’s degree in Art History from NYU and has also decided to stay. (Both Zhang and Huang are friends and colleagues of co-author Luana Harumi, herself an international student). She is getting ready to start her PhD studies at the University of Maryland this fall and is still trying to adapt her coursework so she can have in-person classes and maintain her legal status. “I don’t want to risk my life to take public transport every day and sit in a classroom during the pandemic,” she said. “But this new regulation leaves international students no choice.”

In the 2018-19 academic year, over one million international students lived in the U.S., making up 5.5 percent of the total college student population. Most come from China and India. They also contributed an estimated $44.7 billion to the American economy that year, with most of their funding coming from their own personal or family sources. International students often pay out-of-state tuition and tend to have reduced access to scholarships in comparison with their American counterparts. 

According to a Chronicle of Higher Education tracker, only 9 percent of institutions plan to go online, 24 percent plan to go hybrid and 60 percent plan to go in-person. “This means that for the majority of international students who remained in the U.S., they might be okay if this still holds in the fall,” said New America’s Sophie Nguyen. She added that institutions do have interest in retaining students, so she believes they will try to follow the letter of the law to provide flexibility for international students so that they can still remain legally in the U.S. Students should sit tight because their schools will have to send confirmations about their fall plans to SEVP by July 15, Nguyen said.

Both on Twitter and Instagram, users have been expressing their opinions about the matter with informative posts about how American students can help their international classmates and also by urging people to sign petitions against the ICE order. As of Thursday afternoon, one petition had already collected over 360,000 signatures, while another had more than 171,000 signatures

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I was beyond shocked today when I read ICE‘s statement on the modifications for international students studying at US institutions during Fall 2020. As an international student myself from Germany, I spent the past four months almost entirely alone on my college campus so that I could continue my studies in the fall. Please sign the petitions and share no matter whether you are an international student, educator, friend or anyone else. Also sign the White House petition which binds the White House to respond. Even if you are not affected by this, your friends might be. See any mistakes? Please let me know and I’ll try to fix it! Link to the petition is in my bio. Go follow @internationalstudentaction for more resources. DISCLAIMER: I had no clue that this would be so widely shared as it is. I shared this with the information I was aware of yesterday. Of course, things might look different at different institutions – please feel free to share and make posts about how it looks like at yours!

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The Trump administration has been ramping up new policies to curb legal immigration in the last few months, leaving more and more people with immigration statuses in limbo. Now these SEVP restrictions are undeniably sending a clear message to students around the world looking to join the U.S. higher education system. “This guidance sent a very negative image about the U.S. higher education that is no longer welcoming and safe for students globally,” said Nguyen.

Video by Luana Harumi