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MEXICO CITY — At first, S.G. thought it was fake news.
An undergraduate student from Venezuela, S.G. has been living in Florida for four years. The news she received earlier this week seemed as bizarre and implausible as some of the rumors that regularly float around in her home country. But this was happening in the US, and it was happening to her.
On Monday, the Trump administration announced that foreign students whose course loads are carried out exclusively online amid the coronavirus pandemic would have to leave the country. Shortly after, S.G.’s cellphone began lighting up with a frenzy of messages and links.
“This has to be a lie. It’s surely a rumor,” thought S.G., who requested that only her initials be used for fear of how her immigration status might change in the coming days. “Why would we have to leave if we are here legally and we have a visa?”
Her parents, S.G. said, decided to spend much of their life savings on her college education, even as Venezuela’s economy was nose-diving. Her parents still live in Venezuela, unlike many of their friends and neighbors who fled widespread insecurity, hyperinflation, a crumbling healthcare system, and frequent blackouts.
If she is forced to go back home, how will S.G. be able to take online classes when the power goes out?
The new policy, issued by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which runs the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, is the latest in a series of directives aimed at curbing legal immigration into the US. It puts more than 1 million international students in the US at risk of deportation amid a global pandemic that has severely restricted air travel.
If they are forced to return home, many of these students will be in different time zones and in locations where access to the internet might be spotty, at best, making it harder for them to follow the course than if they were in the US.
This modification “will encourage schools to reopen,” acting Deputy DHS Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told CNN. Holders of F-1 and M-1 visas, which are for academic and vocational students, must transfer to a school that offers partial in-person courses or leave the country. The State Department issued more than 398,000 of these types of visas in fiscal year 2019.
On Wednesday, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration in an effort to halt the new policy.
In a letter to students and faculty, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said the policy aimed to pressure universities to open their campuses in the fall despite record numbers of coronavirus infections, and said its cruelty was “surpassed only by its recklessness.” Harvard had announced last month that classes next year would be held remotely with rare exceptions.
Professors across the country scrambled to understand the effects of the vaguely worded policy, and many offered to provide in-person classes, reimagined to protect students from COVID-19 transmission.
“If outdoors is the safest place to be and we need to meet in person, I will find a palm tree,” Joshua Scacco, a professor of political communication at the University of South Florida, told BuzzFeed News. There are more than 4,700 international students from 141 different countries at USF.
Professors at the University of California, Columbia University, DePaul University, and Syracuse University, among others, made similar offers on Twitter. S.G. said several professors reached out to her on the social media platform to offer support, even if it was only emotional.
More than half of the 1.1 million international students in the US come from China and India, according to the Institute of International Education. Many others come from Latin American countries, where they are often fleeing drug-related violence and political oppression.
When S.G. left Venezuela in 2016, food, water, and electricity shortages were already widespread. But things have worsened and now — they only get running water 30 minutes a day.
“I can’t imagine returning to that now,” said S.G., who reckons there are at least 300 other Venezuelan students at her university.
For now, S.G. is waiting to see what happens with the policy, given the massive pushback from universities. She fears for herself, and for the many Venezuelan students in the US who will have nothing to return to at home because their families are no longer there — millions have fled to neighboring countries, or even Europe, in recent years.
The policy, if enacted, would also pose a serious financial challenge to colleges and universities, which depend heavily on revenue from foreign students. International students contribute $45 billion to the US economy and support 455,000 US jobs, according to the Department of Commerce.
Like most international students, Garry Fanata, a fourth-year software engineering student at the University of California, in Irvine, is paying full tuition. His biggest concern right now is not being able to stay in the US after graduating to work for a few years in a top tech company.
“This was my plan to be able to repay my parents for the investment they have put into my education,” he said.
Fanata, who is the first generation from his Indonesian family to study in the US, said he is not looking at flights home yet because he is confident that his university will find a solution. “However, this might not be the case for smaller colleges and universities,” he added.
Others are less optimistic, including a computer engineering student who said he was planning on visiting his family in India in September. The 20-year-old student, who did want his name used for fear of being targeted by ICE, said that for months, he worried his plans would be derailed by the coronavirus. Now, he fears the US government won’t allow him back into the country.
“This week has been one of the most stressful weeks ever,” he said. On top of the stress, “I have to keep performing at my best. America is ready to kick me out.”
While much of the discussion is currently centered on the economic impact of international students, Scacco says it is important to remember that those affected by this policy are young, law-abiding people who are intent on learning at the best universities.
“These students are human beings deserving of respect, deserving of certainty over their educational processes,” he said. “We have entered into agreements with these students.”