International students react to now-rescinded ICE ruling on student visas

Eight days of fear of deportation over online classes

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By Claire Healy, Assistant News Editor

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced abrupt changes to student visa rules on July 6 that would have stripped international college students taking only online classes in the fall semester of their visas. Though it was rescinded on July 14, this eight-day period created much uncertainty for international students about the upcoming semester and their education.

Under the modification to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), the U.S. Department of State would not have issued visas to international students at the University of Massachusetts and other universities offering only online classes in the fall. For students who had already left the country, the new regulation would have prohibited the U.S. Customs and Border Protection from allowing them back in the country. The policy followed many universities’ decision to move classes online due to safety concerns about reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s a bit difficult to self-isolate in a country that isn’t even yours to begin with. With everyone leaving campus, it became lonely,” said Chinemerem Nwokemodo, a 2020 UMass graduate with a degree in biology. 

“I’d say my major concern before and during the pandemic was the safety of my family in Nigeria. The virus is spreading a lot there, too, and not being with them poses its own emotional challenges,” Nwokemodo said. “As it stands, I’m done with college. But if I was still pursuing an undergraduate degree, I know the uncertainty would be crushing. Also, in my head, I don’t see a world where universities stand by and watch their students be treated like this. I expect schools to take action in some way. Maybe I’m wrong.”

During the days that the order was in place, international students considered their options and the challenges the ruling raised for them. Many students had logistical concerns about leaving the country during a pandemic while flights are restricted and a travel ban is in place between the United States and China. 

Students also worried about leaving jobs and housing they have in the United States and how leaving could jeopardize their ability to get jobs and housing back when eventually returning to complete their education. For universities, this meant losing a significant portion of teaching assistants (TAs), who are international students. 

“Most of the graduate students, their tuition plus their monthly wages are covered by being TAs, so if our visa status is invalid, we cannot get any job appointments,” said Coşku Mıhcı, an economics Ph.D. candidate. “We cannot be TAs, so they are telling us that you should leave your house, plus you should lose your job at the same time.” 

Under normal circumstances, the SEVP program does not allow international students with F-1 visas — nonimmigrant students pursuing academic coursework — to take more than one online course of up to 3 credits. When universities transitioned to online learning in the spring, the program allowed for an exception to that rule so students could finish their semester. That exception was extended to summer courses but was going to be rescinded for the fall semester. 

UMass released a statement affirming its intent to stand with its international students following the announcement of the ruling, as well as a letter from Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy. On July 13, the University joined Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in a lawsuit against the ruling. 

“Staying at home is going to be really hard to manage the time difference and study,” said Rutvik Shah, a senior mechanical engineering major, at the time. “A lot of my friends have been worried about taking a semester off, and maybe graduating next fall, but I looked into that as well and I think that also affects our visa status.”

“So, if we do take a semester off, we lose our entire visa, and have to apply for a new visa,” Shah continued. “That’s again a very painful process, and sometimes my friends tell me they know someone whose second visa didn’t get approved. So that option was put aside by a lot of my friends.”

The stress of potentially having to leave the country for these students amplified the general challenges and uncertainty associated with being an international student.

“The reason I’m still here is because we were pretty sure if we went back when the pandemic hit that we wouldn’t be able to come back.” said Ayan Sengupta, a senior computer engineering major. “That’s something we were considering, is being basically alone out here without much help from anyone, and it’s really frustrating now that the government’s like ‘you have to go back anyway.’”

“And on top of that they expect us to pay full tuition even if we go back, which is really annoying especially since we already have loans and stuff that we have to pay back,” Sengupta said. “And another thing, I can assure you that if you’re not in the U.S. when you graduate you’re not getting jobs in the U.S., and coming from India, the currency in India is a lot weaker.

“I’m paying in rupees, so it’s a huge amount for me, and then I can’t pay my loans off if I don’t get a job here. So especially since I’m a senior, it’s really assured that if I go back now it’s over, I’m not getting into the United States after.”

Following the decision to rescind this ruling and reinstate the spring exception, Sengupta expressed relief, but still had concern about employment opportunities.

“I certainly feel very relieved, but the whole thing has been pretty draining. Also, [I’m] super thankful for everyone who stood up for us international students. There is still some anxiety because I am not sure how all this is gonna affect employment opportunities though,” Sengupta said. “Since most companies are not hiring as much, it’s harder to get a job. As an international student we only get about 90 days after graduation to either get a job or leave.” 

Mıhcı pointed to the size of UMass’s international community, and how the ruling would impact not only international students, but the entire campus. He made the point that, according to recent UMass statistics, around 7.4 percent of undergraduate students are international, compared with around 39 percent of graduate students.

“It’s not only my financial income, a lot of undergrads are not going to get a teaching assistant for the courses, so it’s going to be a huge disruption. It’s not only those of the 10 percent or 40 percent of the students, but also this bigger disruption is going to happen,” Mıhcı said. “In our lives and in the bigger university system.” 

A recent article in the Harvard Crimson said that incoming international students won’t be able to enter the country, even with the rule rescinded, because the spring exception does not apply to students seeking F-1 visas. 

“Disrupted, depressive, more desperate,” Mıhcı said when asked how he felt following the release of the ICE ruling. “I am going to be jobless, and we don’t know when it is going to stop.”

“And what is more making me angry and anxious about it is we are being used as a political bargaining chip. What have we done? We have not come illegally to this country. We are lives here, not bargaining chips. We are humans,” Mıhcı said.“We are feeling subhuman, like they are saying ‘we can kick you out whenever we want.’” 

Claire Healy can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @clurhealy.