When doctoral student Carlos Enrique Ibarra saw a friend’s Facebook post on Monday about new visa rules for students in the US attending online courses, he was not worried. Both Ibarra and the post’s author are foreign students at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Ibarra’s final academic year is set to begin in about a month, after which he will graduate with a doctorate in Hispanic linguistics.
The Mexican citizen assumed that his friend's Facebook post was complaining about new university requirements for the coming fall semester. But over the course of the day, more and more friends shared articles on the same topic and Ibarra realized that it was not about university regulations, but rather in response to an unexpected announcement by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — and possibly a move with major ramifications for his future.
The US immigration service announced on Monday the end of an exception that came into effect with the onset of social distancing measures due to the coronavirus pandemic. Usually, young people from abroad are only issued a student visa to the US if they choose a course of study that requires in-person attendance.
During the pandemic, as nearly all universities were forced to switch their teaching to online courses, this rule was not yet applied. Practically any classroom instruction was eliminated, but students from abroad were allowed to complete their semester despite online-only learning. Up to now, it had been assumed in US academia that this exemption would continue to apply. After all, the health risk posed by the coronavirus is far from being eliminated — especially not in the US — which has by far the most confirmed COVID-19 cases and virus-related deaths than any country in the world.
But on Monday the ICE declared the exception would end. For the fall semester, which in most US universities begins in late August, the following applies: Foreign students who can only attend online courses due to the pandemic are not allowed to continue their studies in the USA and must leave the country.
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Students face expulsion after building their lives in US
Ibarra understood what was at stake. “The anxiety started piling up,” he says. The linguist is in the sixth year of working towards his doctoral degree, but has previously completed other degrees in the US and has worked as a researcher and lecturer at various universities across the country. He has lived in the US for almost 25 years. For Ibarra, the US — not Mexico, where he was born — is home. He was deeply unsettled by the news of the strict regulation. “I had deep concern for my future.”
That night, after finding out the news, Ibarra hardly slept at all. As a doctoral student in his final year, he no longer has courses in the strict sense, but rather consulting hours with professors from his field of study. Should he have to pack his bags now?
Harvard, MIT sue Trump administration
This is also the question for foreign students at Harvard University. The renowned Ivy League school, just outside Boston, will only offer courses online in the coming semester due to the coronavirus pandemic. Foreign students enrolled at the university are therefore subject to the ICE regulation and would theoretically have to leave the US within the next few weeks.
The statue of John Harvard, the namesake of Harvard University, wears a mask. The iconic university has remained cautious and will only offer online courses during the upcoming semester due to COVID-19
But Harvard does not want to leave its international students in the lurch. So, together with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the university is suing the federal government over the Trump administration's new policy. Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow said the sudden end of the exception was politically motivated and a way to force universities to offer face-to-face courses “without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors and others.”
‘You belong here’
Other universities in the US have also promised to assist their foreign students. Princeton Theological Seminary President M. Craig Barnes wrote to his student body on Thursday: “To our international students, I want to assure you that the Seminary will do everything within its power to ensure that you can continue your education here. You are cherished members of our community, and you belong here.”
German student Lena Zwarg is beginning her second master’s degree at the theological seminar in August. She is confident that she can continue studying in the US, as Princeton Theological Seminary offers a hybrid program: some of her courses will take place online, others, with a maximum of 10 students, will be held in person.
In an emergency, she could travel back to Germany on short notice and continue her studies online from her parents’ home. But many students who are now facing forced departure would not have that option. Some students, Zwarg says, have no one in their home country to stay with. “A lot of people don’t have the funds to even buy a plane ticket” on such short notice, she says. “That’s a huge amount of stress and anxiety, not knowing what’s happening.”
The last-minute announcement has once again made clear that US President Donald Trump wants to return to normal as soon as possible. Strict coronavirus restrictions are a thorn in his side, especially during an election year. This week he insisted that schools should reopen normally after the summer vacation — against the advice of his own administration's health experts — and threatened to cut federal education funding to school districts only holding lessons in the classroom on certain days of the week.
The expulsion of foreign students also fits into a scheme of draconian anti-immigration regulations that the Trump administration introduced or tightened under the pandemic restrictions.
A tightrope walk
Ibarra found out on Tuesday evening that he will not be affected by the regulation and may continue his studies in the US. The six hours of doctoral advising sessions that he has weekly are officially considered face-to-face classes and not online courses, although in reality he will spend part of the time talking on the phone or video chatting.
He is relieved — but remains frustrated by the situation. He says that the policy is yet another obstacle for international students in the US, who are already faced with enormous bureaucratic hurdles. “Being here on an F1 [student] visa is far from a stable situation. You’re barely able to cling on to surviving one more semester,” says Ibarra. “It’s like trying to balance on a tightrope that others don’t have to deal with.”
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