Pat Janyamethakul, a Thai student at Virginia Tech, wanted to attend college in the U.S. because of “the country’s reputation in higher education.” The senior says that earning a degree here would “set her apart” from her peers back in Thailand.
Rafael Lima, a Brazilian student, has one more year to go at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. The communications major is on a four-year, full-ride scholarship, one of only four awarded to a scholar in his country by a private donor from Brazil.
Alejandra G'valen is from Mexico. She’s been in the U.S. for six years, earned her undergraduate degree and is finishing a master's degree in theological ethics at Lee University in Tennessee. G'valen says, “The experience we lived ... when the cartels terrorized our city, [was] extremely traumatizing.”
Janyamethakul, Lima and G'valen are among 1 million international students in the United States. This week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that F-1 visa holders will have to leave the country or risk deportation unless they take fall classes in person and not online only.
While 60% of colleges and universities say they will have most classes on campus in person, all schools are grappling with how to teach, while keeping their students and staff healthy and safe during the coronavirus pandemic.
Students say they are caught between being exposed to the coronavirus in the U.S., where cases are increasing, and the risk of losing their immigration status.
“If I cannot return to the United States due to the travel restrictions, the new ICE regulations suggest that my visa status will be terminated,” Brazilian Dan Setton, a rising junior at the University of Evansville in Indiana, said.
“This is completely unconscionable and arbitrary as I haven't done anything wrong. I know a lot of students in my situation and some that will now have to leave the U.S. -- in the middle of a pandemic -- because their schools are going fully online,” Setton said.
Lima says he worries about many things, his scholarship near the top of the list.
“I don't know how that will affect my scholarship,” he says. “One of the requirements of my scholarship is maintaining full regular standing [over] eight semesters … attending classes in person and keeping your visa active. … I don't even know, for example, if I take online classes in Brazil, I will receive a part of my scholarship or none of my scholarship money at all. So there's, there's still that that I have to figure out.”
Nine percent of 1,090 U.S. universities -- or 98 institutions -- are planning for a fall semester exclusively online, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education, which since March has been tracking which colleges and universities will teach online, in person or a hybrid of both.
An additional 24% say they are planning a hybrid model (part in class, part online), and 7.2% undecided or undeclared. Sixty percent say they are planning for an in-person semester.
Virginia Tech is planning a hybrid model this fall. Janyamethakul says she fears being infected by the coronavirus if she returns to Virginia Tech because “no one is willing to heal you, and not to mention the lack of PPE and health care facilities in the United States.”
ICE’s new regulation conflicts with colleges’ and universities’ teaching plans for the fall semester, as well as international students and their immigration status.
Various school and work visas seem to be increasingly difficult to obtain, she says, and “worst of all, I have to risk my life by traveling, risking contracting COVID-19.”
“The rules keep changing and the university keeps postponing regulations in regards to international students because they are waiting for DHS to publish a Temporary Final Rule in the Federal Register,” Janyamethakul said. “The current regulations are pretty much for citizens and all the options given to us are pretty much all disadvantageous.”
Lee University, G'valen’s college, is one of 60% of U.S. universities planning to resume in-person classes and activities this fall, according to the university’s website.
“If the plans don't come through, and let's say they don’t make a final decision by August, I have nowhere to go. I am in limbo, together with many other students,” G'valen said.
If she is unable to return to campus, G'valen “would have to move further to the center of Mexico with some distant cousins” until the pandemic is over.
Some universities are making accommodations.
Columbia University in New York says it will offer one-credit classes in person to international students so they meet ICE’s requirements and can come back or stay in the U.S. “We want our international students to be able to complete their studies here if possible,” officials said in an email to the university community.
“For the large community of international students who cannot come to Columbia because of the pandemic, we will be adapting our network of Columbia Global centers in new locations to provide in-person academic and peer engagement.”
Freshmen and sophomores will be on campus in the fall, juniors and seniors in the spring. International students will be welcome on the New York City campus year-round.
Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed suit Wednesday against the Department of Homeland Security -- ICE’s federal parent agency -- to stave off the action.
And students have launched online petitions, including one on the White House website, a site created in 2001 by the Obama administration.
A petition with more than 308,000 signatures Wednesday afternoon on Change.org requests that F-1 and M-1 students be able to remain in the U.S. with online-only classes.
“I just want to try to get back to my normal life,” Lima laments, calling the year so far “really chaotic.” He was studying abroad in Belgium this winter when the coronavirus pandemic erupted. After 27 hours of travel that wove north and south before landing in South America, the Brazilian tested positive for COVID-19.
“Just the feeling of me being back in, like, a college dorm where I have, like, all my stuff sorted out,” he said in a Skype interview with VOA. “When I only have to worry about studying, instead of worrying about my visa, worrying about my health, worrying about not affecting my family, worrying about, like, a myriad of stuff.”
“I was really looking forward to that,” says Lima, who has just his senior year to finish.
“I really don't know how, how am I going to be able to do that this semester with all the restrictions that I have to face right now,” he asked.
Ruby Rosenthal and Aline Barros contribued to this report.