International students weigh risks: coronavirus or deportation

Students from around the world studying in the U.S. are scrambling to come up with a plan after the federal government said they could not attend online-only classes. 

Bebeto Matthews/AP
Natalia Afonso, an international student at Brooklyn College, sits outside her home on July 9, 2020, in New York. Ms. Afonso, who is from Brazil, hopes her school will offer some in-person classes so that she can remain in the country.

International students worried about a new immigration policy that could potentially cost them their visas say they feel stuck between being unnecessarily exposed during the coronavirus pandemic and being able to finish their studies in America.

Students from countries as diverse as India, China, and Brazil told The Associated Press they are scrambling to devise plans after federal immigration authorities notified colleges this week that international students must leave the United States or transfer to another college if their schools operate entirely online this fall.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit this week to block the decision, and now California has become the first state to seek an injunction against enforcing the new visa policy.

“Shame on the Trump Administration for risking not only the education opportunities for students who earned the chance to go to college, but now their health and well-being as well,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Thursday.

Some said they may return home, or move to nearby Canada.

“I’m generating research, I’m doing work in a great economy,” said Batuhan Mekiker, a Ph.D. student from Turkey studying computer science at Montana State University in Bozeman. He’s in the third year of a five-year program.

”If I go to Turkey, I would not have that,” he said. “I would like to be somewhere where my talent is appreciated.”

Mathias, a Seattle-based student who spoke on the condition his last name not be used for fear of losing his immigration status, said he is set to sell his car, break his lease, and get his cat Louis permission to fly back to his home in Paris in the next two weeks.

“Everyone’s very worried,” he said. “We have our whole lives here.”

Many American universities have come to depend on the revenue from more than 1 million international students, who typically pay higher tuition. President Donald Trump has insisted they return to in-person instruction as soon as possible, alleging that schools are being kept closed to harm the economy and make him look bad.

The guidance was released the same day Harvard announced it would keep all undergraduate classes online this fall. Harvard said the new Trump directive would prevent many of its 5,000 international students from remaining in the U.S.

The University of Southern California sent a letter to students and faculty, saying it is “deeply troubled” and that the “the policy could negatively impact countless international students.”

Like other universities, USC said it was pushing back and working to ensure students’ academic careers aren’t harmed, while exploring ways for students to safely study in person if they wish.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the directive could inflict “significant harm” on colleges, students, the business community, and the economy.

A U.S. State Department press release said the policy “provides greater flexibility for non-immigrant students to continue their education in the United States, while also allowing for proper social distancing on open and operating campuses.”

A day after Harvard sued, the university notified the court that immigration authorities appear to be already enforcing the policy. A lawyer for Harvard urged the judge to suspend the rule, saying that a first-year student from Belarus was turned away from his flight at a Minsk airport. There is another hearing Friday.

“This is very dangerous and cruel,” said Jessie Peng, a Chinese graduate student in analytics at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

“We have nowhere to go,” said Ms. Peng. “Either risk our lives and go to school or we risk our lives flying back to China.”

Jasdeep Mandia, a doctoral candidate from India studying economics at Arizona State University, said he has breathing problems that could worsen if he gets sick from COVID-19.

Mr. Mandia originally planned to conduct all his fall studies online. He says the Trump directive puts the shaky standing of international students on display.

“It has never been a level playing field,” he said. “But this makes it more apparent.”

At Indiana University, American scholar Dakota Murray wrote in the school newspaper about his uncertainty over how the guidance would affect him and his wife, a fellow doctoral candidate who is from South Korea.

Mr. Murray said he and his wife had discussed going to live in South Korea or maybe Canada, where she has relatives. He spoke on condition that his wife’s name not be used because she is trying to obtain a green card that will let her work and reside in the U.S. after she finishes her studies.

Vanderbilt University student Safa Shahzad went home to Manchester, England, for a visit in March but got stuck there when the U.S. imposed travel restrictions to slow the spread of the virus.

Still in England, Ms. Shahzad, who is double majoring in politics and computer science, completed her freshman year from afar after the university transitioned online.

Although Vanderbilt has said courses will be a hybrid of online and in person this fall, Ms. Shahzad cannot travel to the U.S. until the Trump administration lifts the travel restrictions.

“I’m just kind of waiting,” she said.

Computer science student Vivian Degasperi from Brazil said the new guidelines “are going to make my life harder” at Erie Community College in Buffalo, New York.

Ms. Degasperi said the college has announced that almost all classes will be taught remotely, and is examining how to keep international students from losing their visa status.

Because she lives near the northern U.S. border, Ms. Degasperi said she would consider moving to Canada.

“My family is worried,” she said. “Everyone is calling me all the time.”

Natalia Afonso, a Brooklyn College student, also from Brazil, said she hopes the school will adopt a hybrid model of remote and in-person classes – but she fears riding the subway to campus could increase her chances of catching the virus.

“I don’t see myself moving back to Brazil at this point,” said Ms. Afonso, who is studying education and just finished her first semester. “It’s very unfair.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Ms. Naishadham reported from Atlanta and Ms. Powell from Washington. AP writers Collin Binkley in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Anita Snow in Phoenix contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: As a public service, the Monitor has removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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