UPDATE: Thanks to the many people, organizations, and institutions that worked tirelessly to reverse ICE’s rule, the Trump Administration finally rescinded the order on July 14th. The lawsuit carried out by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey which made this change possible counted with the help of attorneys general of over seventeen states, along with forty plus institutions. This shows how powerful unity is and how important it is to fight for what is right. Positive change can take up to years to happen, but it can also have some immediate effects which is exactly what we are seeing with this ruling.
On July 7th, ICE released a modification to its Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) for the fall 2020 semester. The new ruling is specifically directed towards international students who carry either a nonimmigrant F-1 or M-1 visa. While American universities and colleges have been debating on whether or not to reopen their campuses and classrooms for in-person activities, over one million students might be left with no choice but to leave the country.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, students seeking an undergraduate or graduate education in the United States were subject to strict rules and regulations in order to maintain their F-1 and M-1 visa status. These included:
- a full-time student course load,
- a maximum of one class or three credit hours online, and
- a five-month rule which dictates that if a student leaves the U.S. for over five months their Student and Exchange Visitor Information (SEVIS) will be terminated.
During the spring 2020 semester, the five-month rule and online class restriction were put on hold after the closure of institutions for public health reasons and implementation of distance learning across the country. However, this will not be the case for the fall semester. International students attending schools that are moving fully online will have to leave the country or be subject to deportation. International students at schools that will be fully in-person will still be subject to the previous online class restriction, and students attending institutions moving to “hybrid learning” will have to have at least one in-person class in their schedule in order to remain in the U.S. Those who are unable to accommodate the new rule and are forced to leave the country will still be able to maintain their SEVIS and visa active.
While states are opening up and people are going back to their normal activities, in some places it almost feels as if COVID-19 never existed, and ICE’s decision can be seen as reasonable. However, as an international student and someone who has been personally affected by travel bans related to the pandemic, I can assure you that this modification is extremely harmful and problematic and will affect both our studies and other aspects of our lives. Because of the five-month rule and international travel bans, many international students remaining in the U.S. during quarantine were already planning on staying in the country for the fall 2020 semester. This is true for me, but now that all of my classes are online, I am struggling to find a solution that will not negatively impact my health or studies.
One of the biggest issues with modifying the temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students is that we are very much still living through uncertain times. Announcing these changes a month before the semester starts gives us no time to properly plan, especially since many of us cannot enter our home countries at the moment. Moreover, because of our visa status, international students are only allowed to work in on-campus positions; many of these jobs have been cut or had hours cut, putting some of us in serious financial struggles. Most international students pay full tuition, often with no financial assistance. Requiring students to leave the country will only add extra costs–compromising our entire educations for those of us who cannot afford to stay in school.
In terms of public health safety, this change could not come at a worst time. While COVID-19 cases are rapidly increasing in the U.S., forcing international students to travel back to places where the virus has been under control is beyond dangerous and selfish, and has the potential to set off a new wave of infection around the world. While I have been taking all precautions and quarantining myself in the same place for four months, I am hyper-cautious about what a 16-hour trip with three layovers might do to my own health and that of my family. Schools choosing to remain online for the fall semester are considering the safety of all parties involved, and international students should be protected, not punished. Online classes are the safest option for students with underlying conditions or compromised immune systems, and forcing international students to take at least one in-person class to remain in the country could be detrimental to individual and public health.
Many international students seek an education in the U.S. due to poor conditions of educational systems at home. Depriving womxn from countries where they would not have half as many opportunities as they do in the U.S. is beyond selfish and cruel, and some of these students will not be able to continue their educations if they lack appropriate access to the internet or adequate resources in their respective countries. Maintaining the spring 2020 semester rule for international students would be beneficial not only for the students themselves, but for millions of families around the world and their countries as well.
This new change to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program has not been passed yet, so it is important that we fight to protect international students as a community (resources on the SOIS website are created by @community_equity_). Any help counts, and together we will make a difference.