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Foreign students’ dilemma: Risk COVID-19 exposure or deportation?

Harvard University and MIT have challenged ICE guidance that bars international students from online-only classes amid the pandemic

Harvard University, shown here, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have sued the Trump administration over its decision to strip international college students of their visas if all of their courses are held online.
Harvard University, shown here, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have sued the Trump administration over its decision to strip international college students of their visas if all of their courses are held online. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Benson Neethipudi was working at his summer internship earlier this week when his Whatsapp messaging app started blowing up with panicked texts from fellow students. 

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Homeland Security agency that oversees the nation’s student and exchange visitor program, had just issued new guidance applying to international students such as himself. 

The guidance noted that all student visa holders whose university curricula were offered online “must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status.”  

“If not,” the agency added, “they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.” 

When Neethipudi, an Indian graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, surveyed the social media conversation around the development, he found nothing addressing the dilemma he and other international students now face: Risk exposure to COVID-19 — or deportation? 

ICE’s announcement Monday came after several universities announced they would take most or all of their classes online to reduce on-campus occupancy and limit the spread of COVID-19. 

On Wednesday, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued to block the Trump administration from enforcing the new guidance, citing hardships to students and the universities themselves. 

“ICE’s action leaves hundreds of thousands of international students with no educational options within the United States,” according to the lawsuit filed in a U.S. District Court of the District of Massachusetts. “Just weeks from the start of the fall semester, these students are largely unable to transfer to universities providing on-campus instruction, notwithstanding ICE’s suggestion that they might do so to avoid removal from the country.” 

The lawsuit also argued that the new paperwork required from universities that are offering a mix of online and in-person courses certifying that international students were “not taking an entirely online course” would be overly burdensome, given that each university would need to reissue thousands of immigration forms. 

Neethipudi, who studies education policy, said the questions that surfaced after ICE issued the directive still haven’t been answered. He wondered: If students stay and pursue the “hybrid” model, how would ICE monitor their attendance? For those forced to return home, would they even be allowed to travel, given the border closures and restrictions around the globe?

Neethipudi also wondered what kind of risk students face if forced to travel to countries like India and Brazil with skyrocketing COVID-19 cases. He said some international students come from countries that lack reliable internet connections — and would have a hard time completing coursework. He also questioned whether graduate students would be allowed to work.

“We are at the bottom of this information chain, and the burden is on us to make the hardest decisions based on such limited information,” Neethipudi said in an interview. 

Around 1 million students from around the world study at the U.S. institutions on temporary visas, according to the New American Economy, a bipartisan organization in favor of immigration reform. Their visas have strict rules about the types of classes students may take — a complete online course load is prohibited — but in March ICE made an exception “for the duration of the emergency.”

For colleges, the ICE directive could mean a huge financial hit. Most international students are ineligible for financial aid and pay full tuition that goes toward, among other things, subsidizing education for U.S. citizen students. 

“The destructive and indefensible purpose driving these policies is by now all too familiar, as is the resulting damage to the nation’s academic institutions,” Columbia University President Lee C. Bolinger said in a response to the new ICE policy. 

Backlash also came from elected officials and members of Congress. Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healy took to Twitter to call the policy a “cruel (& illegal) attempt by the Trump Admin & ICE to stir up uncertainty & punish immigrants” and threatened legal action. Immigration advocacy groups also are considering legal remedies. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro also criticized ICE’s move. 

“Kicking international students out of the US during a global pandemic because their colleges are moving classes online for physical distancing hurts students,” Warren said in a tweet Monday. “It’s senseless, cruel, and xenophobic.”

Amid backlash, the White House has sent mixed messages. President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday that “when foreigners attend our great colleges & want to stay in the U.S., they should not be thrown out of our country,” suggesting a break with his own agency. 

Homeland Security acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli, however, defended the guidance on television. In a CNN interview, he said the move was designed to “encourage schools to reopen.” 

Meanwhile, for international students already far from family and dealing with a global public health and economic crisis, the new guidance is one more thing to worry about. 

Neethipudi, whose partner is in the Netherlands and parents remain in India, says because of mounting uncertainty, he has spent a considerable amount of time talking to his family trying to determine “what is my plan B? What is my plan C? I’m always thinking of contingencies.”

He added: “That mental and emotional labor takes away my time from the actual work I’m here to do.” 

Together with high health care costs, income inequality, racism and the administration’s crackdown on immigrants, Neethipudi said the American dream is neither aligned with his familial responsibilities nor his professional aspirations. 

“I didn’t come here wanting to be American,” he said. “If I’m so far away from home, and the way of life I know personally, I would rather be in a country where policies are better for me.”

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