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Story Publication logo July 10, 2020

'Take In-Person Classes or Leave the Country': What Does the ICE Ultimatum Really Mean for International Students?

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The Immaculata Church of the University of San Diego in San Diego, California. Image by Kit Leong. United States, 2018.
The Immaculata Church of the University of San Diego in San Diego, California. Image by Kit Leong. United States, 2018.

The suspension of work visas for foreigners and their dependents, threats to curtail post-study Optional Practical Training Program, Chinese student visa moratorium, the exclusion of international students from the Cares Act emergency funds, campus residence closures… On top of all that, did international students expect a requirement to leave the U.S. amid a global pandemic?

Unfortunately, yes, we did.

The ICE international student ban has become a hot topic as many speak up and share their frustrations about the current administration's "throwing out the baby with the bathwater" approach to immigration issues. Politicians, think tanks, colleges, and universities highlight the immense value international students bring to the country's economy and their contributions to numerous aspects of academic life: In 2019, international students contributed nearly $41 billion to the U.S. economy and created or supported 458,000 jobs during the 2018-2019 academic year, says NAFSA, the world's largest non-profit dedicated to international education and exchange. The National Foundation for American Policy states that 25 percent of the founders of billion-dollar start-up companies came to the U.S. as international students.

Professors fear that a student affected by the ban could be the next Noubar Afeyan or the next Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is not surprising as U.S. science and technology research is heavily dependent on foreign students, who, according to the Congressional Research Service, accounted for 54 percent of master's degrees and 44 percent of doctorate degrees issued in STEM fields in 2016-17.

We have heard our advocates loud and clear on the vitality of our presence in U.S. colleges and universities. And this rhetoric is valuable in order to rescind the new ICE guidance, which could throw international students in a limbo while COVID-19 cases are soaring in the country. Many have spoken about what the country will lose if we leave, but only few have mentioned what it really means to us. Every year many international students dare to uproot their lives and make substantial financial and social investments to come to the U.S. They spend years away from their families and home countries, studying in an alien environment with financial hardship, minimum health insurance and social benefits.

The pandemic and regulations that followed, like campus closures in March, added an additional layer to our already anxious uncertainty. Relying on ICE's previous exemption, allowing international students to take online classes and remain in the country, international students made plans for continuing the academic year. These included sorting out last-minute housing after being asked to leave campus residential halls, making the difficult choice of leaving for their home countries, or staying in the face of border closures and uncertainty with the containment of the virus, all while facing dire financial insecurity.

Apart from being a valuable resource for the U.S. economy and culture, we are human beings, as terrified and disillusioned by the pandemic as every citizen in this country. We should first and foremost be respected for our inherent human dignity and right to pursue education in happiness. ICE's new guidance is an attack on this basic right. It poses an ultimatum amid pandemic—take in-person classes this fall, or leave the country. What if our home countries are in a different time zone? What if we don't have the internet at home? What if our country bans online class apps? What if there is war in my country? What if I catch the virus on my flight back? The list of "what-ifs" is long, and almost all of them are out of our control.

It is true that the majority of schools plan for in-person or hybrid models, however if COVID-19 cases spike in the locality, universities may be forced to switch to a remote-only model as per state or county ordinance. Thus, international students may begin the fall semester, pay tuition, and partake in coursework, only to find that halfway through the semester they are subject to removal proceedings. If this is the case, international students will have to pack up their belongings, break their leases, and make last minute travel arrangements during a dangerous pandemic.

Sadly, we saw the attack on students coming given the previous immigration restrictions put into place by the administration before and during the pandemic. Yet, we are short of safe options where we are not forced to put our lives and the lives of our loved ones in danger. Further, unless the ICE guidance is not rescinded, we continue to be in uncertainty as we won't be exempt even if an outbreak forces schools online in the fall semester. Many of us have already made difficult choices since the beginning of the pandemic. We hope we don't have to be pushed to make the difficult decision of leaving the country. We hope no one has to make such choices during uncharted times like this.

Nasema Zeerak is from Afghanistan, Shushana Tevanyan from Armenia, and Jennifer Wilczynski  from Canada. All are international graduate students at the Joan B. Kroc Institute of Peace and Justice and University of San Diego School of Law, University of San Diego.


Editor's note on July 14, 2020: The Trump administration has now rescinded the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy that would have mandated foreign students take at least one in-person class to remain in the country. The resolution reached by the government and universities "reinstates a policy implemented in March amid the pandemic that gave international students flexibility to take all their classes online and remain legally in the country with student visas," according to The New York Times.

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