While the world is grappling with the ongoing public health crisis, international students in the United States find themselves facing a struggle of their own.
In early July, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency ordered that anyone on a student visa whose university was planning for online-only instruction in Fall 2020 would need to transfer schools or leave the country. This came as a shock to hundreds of thousands of students around the country, including the estimated 850 enrolled at the University of Akron and 1,409 enrolled at Kent State University.
“I was like, ‘this is not legit.’ I started looking for sources and I figured out it was a real website. It’s out. They don’t want us here anymore,” says Arham Jain, who goes by AJ, and is pursuing his undergraduate global communication degree at Kent State. “I was numb. I did not expect it. You don’t expect certain things to come up like this. You don’t know how to react to them. Then you get panic.”
International students need one of two types of visas to study in the United States. For academic programs, students receive F-1 visas, while those attending vocational programs come to the United States on M-1 visas.
Before the pandemic, international students on F-1/M-1 visas were only allowed to take a maximum of one online course (3 credit hours) per semester. ICE announced on March 13 that international students could take a full course load of online courses — anywhere from 9-16 credit hours, depending on the institution and degree level — if their institutions switched to remote learning without losing their active status within the Student and Exchange Visitor Program. The March announcement stated that the modification would be in effect for as long as the emergency lasts, although it may be subject to change.
That change happened on July 6. ICE not only reverted to pre-COVID guidelines but also added further restrictions for international students. Per the new instructions, international students enrolled in universities planning online-only instruction in Fall 2020 would be forced to transfer to universities maintaining some amount of face-to-face learning or risk losing their immigration status and having to leave the country entirely.
Soon after the announcement, several academic institutions and 17 states filed lawsuits against the government in federal court to challenge the decision. On July 14, ICE and the Department of Homeland Security rescinded the decision. However, ICE announced on July 24 that the March guidance only applies to students already in the United States. Those planning on starting their education at U.S. universities in Fall 2020 would not be allowed to enter the country if their institutions are following an online-only instruction model.
Despite being rescinded, the July order left a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the heads of international students.
“The last thing after finishing [reading] the news is that it was very much unclear,” says Arnob Banik, a Bangladeshi student pursuing a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Akron. “I mean, there are so many loopholes to me. What will happen? I mean, there are so many questions from that notice.”
“I think, not only me but also other international students, they are still concerned [about] what is going to happen,” said Pacifique Niyonzima, a student from Rwanda who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Cultural Foundations at Kent State University. “Nobody knows that we are safe and well-supported 100%. Nobody could believe that could be an order that could happen and it happened. That’s a big concern.”
The initial order left students with more questions than answers. In addition to confusion about their education, they had to consider the struggles they would have to go through to leave the country considering COVID-induced travel restrictions around the world.
“When we want to go back to our country, we have to plan for up to one year because airfare is expensive and would be a financial burden,” said Shagata Das, another Bangladeshi student at the University of Akron. “Moreover, air travel is not normal nowadays. So, I can say in my case, in my country of Bangladesh, there is only, I think, one flight per week. So how can they go back to their country?”
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that international students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy.
However, some students would like to see their social and cultural contributions be valued as much as their financial ones.
“We feel like that makes us a commodity, that we are viewed as moneymakers,” Niyonzima says. “I think we appreciate being here and we can bring so much to the community, culture, and helping people know more about other countries […] so when you say we have to go back home, that can even cause psychological impact because everyone now is dealing with COVID-19 […] It’s making the situation even harder.”
As of July 28, both Kent State and the University of Akron are planning hybrid education in Fall 2020, in which students take a combination of in-person and online classes. Many students and educators are worried about COVID-19. But international students say they’re struggling with the fact that they have to worry about their immigration status on top of everything else. “It is really unfortunate that we are discussing something other than COVD-19 right now,” Banik says.
“I feel like if these people want us to go have face-to-face classes in a pandemic. The coronavirus is still out. It’s a respiratory disease, you can’t see it but you can breathe it,” Jain says. “What safety do I have if I go to study these classes? What happens if I get COVID positive?”
Nahla Bendefaa is a writer, photographer, and content creator from Akron, Ohio by way of Kenitra, Morocco. She enjoys rewatching Friday Night Lights, painting, and confusing Spotify’s algorithm while making her way through a seemingly never-ending tea collection. Photos: Each photo used with permission from the student pictured.