International students concerned for fall semester amid online classes, new ICE regulations

By Ignacio Calderon and Mari Devereaux

Jennifer Chavez

When international student Ksymena Pawlowicz found out her visa status could be in jeopardy and she could be forced to return home, she became stressed and anxious.

“I felt [rushed] when the news came out,” Pawlowicz said. “I was like, ‘Should I pack and go back to Poland even if we are in the middle of a pandemic?’”

On Monday, July 6, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, announced the U.S. Department of State “will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester.”

This decision effectively reverses an exemption made by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, on March 13 due to the coronavirus pandemic, when the government allowed international students to take remote classes while maintaining their visa status “for the duration of the emergency.”

Institutions across the country have worked to adapt their educational systems and reduce the number of in-person classes for the upcoming fall semester, attempting to minimize health risks related to the coronavirus, or COVID-19. Now, with international students required to take in-person classes to maintain their status, colleges are put in an even more complex position.

The SEVP news release outlines several scenarios for international students. If a school is completely remote for the fall semester, students must leave the country or transfer to a school with in-person instruction. Students currently outside the U.S. whose classes are scheduled to just be held online while attending a school “operating under normal in-person classes” will have to switch to in-person courses to enter the country.

If a school has decided to hold traditional in-person instruction, international students can take a maximum of three credit hours online.

If a school has adopted a hybrid course model, like Columbia, international students are allowed to take more than three credit hours online as long as they also have in-person learning in some form and are making “normal progress in their degree program.”

Due to this, international students with an F-1 visa are at risk of facing immigration consequences including removal proceedings, or deportation, if they are unable to take in-person classes.

F-1 visas are given to nonimmigrant students coming to the U.S. “to pursue a full course of academic study,” according to ICE.

In a July 9 email to the Chronicle, Director of International Student and Scholar Services Clare Lake said Columbia will have approximately 300 incoming and continuing international students who are eligible to register for the Fall 2020 semester.

Kyle Tso-Chih Yeh, a creative producing graduate student, is facing a myriad of challenges with attending school this year.

Yeh, who returned to his home country of Taiwan once the spring semester was over, recently discovered all of his courses are online for the Fall 2020 semester.

For now, he plans to finish his classes online while in Taiwan due to ICE’s recent restrictions.

“The only problem is that all of my stuff [is] at my apartment in Chicago and I am still paying the rent,” Yeh said.

Sophomore public relations major Pawlowicz, who is from Poland, has been studying in Chicago for nearly two years. Pawlowicz said she wished Columbia had sent an email right away to soothe international students’ worries.

On Wednesday, July 8, Lake sent an email on behalf of Senior Vice President and Provost Marcella David and ISSS and said official instructions and guidance on what international students must do under the new regulations will be posted on the ISSS website and emailed to students.

“In the meantime, we want to assure you that Columbia College Chicago’s re-opening plans presently include a variety of classes that will ensure that most students will be able to remain on campus,” the email said.

It will be harder to maintain the statuses of international students who are “unresponsive to emails and calls,” Lake said in the Thursday, July 9 statement to the Chronicle.

Although Columbia provided international students with email announcements and written assurances, other colleges and universities across the country are taking more direct action to ensure their international students’ safety in the U.S. for the upcoming semester.

Shortly after the announcement on Monday, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a joint lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and ICE. The lawsuit claims it is “impossible, impracticable, prohibitively expensive and/or dangerous” for students to return to their home countries to participate in online instruction.

“The order came down without notice—its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness,” said Lawrence Bacow, president of Harvard University, in a collegewide statement. “Moreover, if an institution pursues in-person or hybrid instruction this fall and a serious outbreak of COVID-19 occurs, the institution would face strong pressure not to switch to online instruction … because to do so would immediately place its international students in jeopardy.”

A Thursday, July 9 collegewide email from David said Columbia is “coordinating with our state and national educational associations advocating for reversal of this rule. We are closely monitoring legal actions being pursued to stop the implementation of the new rule.”

David’s email said Columbia “values our international students and we are committed to supporting them wherever they are.” She also encouraged members of the college community to “consider contacting their Congressional representatives to urge them to act.”

For many international students, being able to pursue their education in the U.S. has been a dream. Pawlowicz, who currently has hybrid and in-person classes on her schedule, said since the U.S. is a multicultural country, it is a great environment for international students.

“[It] is the most beautiful thing about being international students,” she said. “[We] bring another spirit, another culture, another thinking to another country and just embrace it.”

Erin Corcoran, executive director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, said she hopes colleges will start to put pressure on the government to reconsider this decision.

“What [universities] need to keep afloat is tuition dollars, and foreign students typically pay full tuition to universities because they’re not eligible for any kind of financial aid,” Corcoran said.

A study by NAFSA, a nonprofit association of international educators, shows the 53,724 international students in Illinois during the 2018-2019 academic year contributed $1.9 billion to the economy and supported more than 25,000 jobs.

“[International students] are incredibly important to the educational experience for U.S. students as well, because they bring a whole other set of experiences and values and ideas and thinking that enrich the classroom,” Corcoran said.

Yeh said the diversity of students in his classes is beneficial to his education as “different points of view from different backgrounds yields a better creative process.”

Unless SEVP or ICE change their minds, Corcoran said the only way international students will be allowed to take online classes and remain in the U.S. is if Congress decides to adjust the eligibility requirements for students with F-1 visas.

However, Corcoran said she does not see this happening in the near future because Congress has not “been able to get anything done with respect to immigration,” especially in regards to DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Lake said ISSS will guarantee international students at Columbia understand their responsibilities with the new regulations.

“Working together we can ensure that international students will be able to remain in the U.S. and continue their studies as planned,” Lake said. “I recognize these are very challenging times for our international students and [we] want to assure them that we are here for them.”

Updated Tuesday, July 14 at 10:00 a.m. with information on a national lawsuit

On Monday, July 13, 17 states including Illinois filed a joint lawsuit in the District Court of Massachusetts against the Department of Homeland Security for its new restriction on international student visas.

Columbia is listed among 40 other institutions around the country that have declared their support in the lawsuit in the interest of protecting students with M-1 and F-1 visas.

In her declaration, Senior Vice President and Provost Marcella David wrote that the new policy could affect Columbia’s population of over 300 international students and their expected contribution of around $12.26 million to the school’s revenue. She added the regulation could be a detriment to student and community health, a burden on administrative operations and planning, and cause economic and educational harm to students.

“If we are forced by circumstances to transition to fully remote instruction for or in the fall or spring semester, all of our international students will be deportable on short notice, which would be heavy burden and might not be doable for them, and would negatively impact their studies,” David stated in the document.