Caroline Poole was in her off-campus apartment in Maine when a high school friend texted her in a panic. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had released a new directive for the fall 2020 semester: international students who were taking an online course load could not remain in the US.
Poole’s college, Bowdoin, was planning to offer an almost entirely virtual semester. Poole — who is from Toronto, Canada — could be deported.
“I opened my computer and saw that everything was the worst that I could have imagined,” she said. “It was terrifying.”
The ICE guidelines dropped on July 6th, after a number of schools had already announced plans for an online-only semester. Even more, including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, and Northwestern, were planning for a blend of remote and in-person instruction.
Other students had less measured responses. “I was like, ‘What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?’” said Ameya Rao, a Cornell senior from Singapore. The next day, Rao and a friend published a letter in Cornell’s student newspaper demanding that the university’s president denounce ICE’s restrictions, which they called “a xenophobic, bigoted and inhumane political stunt designed to further nationalist rhetoric.”
The guidelines were in keeping with ICE’s established policy — students with F-1 visas can usually count a maximum of one online course per term toward their degree. But they were an abrupt reversal of the guidance applied to the spring 2020 semester, which permitted international students to take multiple virtual classes after COVID-19 drove universities to move instruction online. ICE had previously stated that those exceptions would be in place for “the duration of the emergency.”
Becca Niburg, a managing partner at Elpis Legal who previously worked as an immigration officer for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), believes the July 6th directive was “boneheaded.”
“The policy was just neglectful of common sense. The students were already being impacted by this virus in ways that most people don’t understand,” Niburg says. “Putting out a memo like that one just exacerbated their stress levels, exacerbated the situation they were already in with a real disregard for what they were doing.”
“The policy was just neglectful of common sense.”
Universities agreed. On July 8th, just two days after the directive dropped, Harvard and MIT sued the Trump administration in the US District Court in Boston. ICE and DHS agreed to walk back the order on July 14th, less than five minutes into a hearing for the case.
With the directive rescinded, public attention has shifted away from international students. And there’s no shortage of pressing immigration matters: the administration is currently being challenged in court over Trump’s suspension of a slew of nonimmigrant visa programs, including the H-1B. But for many students, the eight-day ICE saga will color the upcoming semester — and the months and years that follow.
Fears for the future
There were just over a million international college students enrolled in the United States for the 2018-2019 school year. Only a small proportion left the US following the outbreak of COVID-19 — respondents to an Institute of International Education survey reported that 92 percent remained in the country.
Pandemic-driven border closures barred some students from returning home. Others anticipated that if they left, the US’s travel restrictions would prevent them from returning for the fall semester. Those fears have largely panned out: the US government is still barring foreign nationals from entering from a number of nations, including China, Iran, Brazil, the UK, Ireland, and the European Union’s Schengen area.
For many international students, the ruling was a sign, even a warning: it made clear that the Trump administration didn’t want them. I spoke to seven students for this article, and all of them were worried that the agency could drop more policies to abruptly upend their lives.
“The previous announcement was very sudden,” said Dilys Tan Chiat, an NYU senior from Singapore. “Even though they retracted their statement, they could just as well put out a different statement.” Tan is part of NYU’s Singapore Students Association and Malaysian Students Association — the announcement has made some of their members nervous about returning to the US and driven many incoming freshmen to push their enrollment to the spring semester. “It will be in the back of a lot of people’s minds,” Tan said. “There’s a lingering thought of ‘What if something changes, what if I have to leave suddenly?’”
Tan’s roommate Ginger Ooi, who is from Malaysia, wasn’t as concerned with the ICE directive — as a chemistry major, she’ll be taking an in-person lab. But the more anti-immigrant policies she sees from the Trump administration, the more she worries that disaster is coming. “All these things, they’re little things, they’re not permanent things. They’re ‘We’re looking into it’ or ‘We’re suspending it,’ they’re all just building up,” Ooi told me. “I feel like they could accumulate into something else.”
Christopher Gaston, an immigration attorney who works with international students, says those fears are “absolutely founded.” He believes the July 6th directive to be part of “a more overarching policy of limiting lawful immigration.”
The Trump administration’s relationship with court rulings has certainly been dicey in recent months. The DHS is not accepting new applications to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), in defiance of a recent federal court order compelling the administration to restore the policy. That’s an ominous precedent: when it comes to immigration, Trump is willing to reject judiciary authority.
“There’s been a lot of uncertainty ever since Trump came into office about what might happen to these students,” says Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law where a number of international students are enrolled. “It’s difficult enough to go to another country to study, but to have this kind of cloud present and uncertainty ... I think it creates a lot of confusion when a student needs to be thinking about studying and doing well, if and when they can matriculate. I think it’s extremely disruptive.”
Tobias says he plans to stay up to date on any new restrictions and to help students navigate them as much as he can. But “to have these things just pop up at the last minute when you’re trying to get ready for school, and in the face of COVID — it has exacerbated an already difficult situation.”
The uncertainty has driven Rao, the Cornell student, to shift her priorities. Currently, F-1 students like her are able to remain in the US for a year after graduation through the post-completion Optional Practical Training program (OPT). Rao had hoped to look for a job during that time. Now, she’s scared that the administration might change the requirements for OPT or suspend the program entirely. She’s applying for a consulting internship in DC, which she hopes will lead to a full-time offer right after she graduates. If she gets the internship, she’ll shift to a more online course load so she can prioritize the job.
“I know I can’t leave any room for error,” Rao told me. “I have to think of the worst-case scenario and prepare myself for it, and make sure I am as well protected as I can be.”
For other students, there’s not much preparation they can do. João Cardoso, a Yale senior from Portugal, has mentally come to terms with the fact that he might need to leave the US at some point in the semester. But he’s still worried about future ICE actions — his mother lives in a small, rented room, and he wouldn’t have much space to study if he had to go home. Plus, by sharing such close quarters with her after taking multiple flights and trains to get home, Cardoso worries he could put her health at risk. There’s not much he can do to change that situation — “I’m just taking it day by day and really hoping I won’t get sent back.”
Waiting it out
Some students who went home for the summer are weighing whether to return. It’s not hard to see why. The US has seen more COVID-19 cases and deaths than any other country.
“Everyone around me is asking me why I’m going back,” Tan told me. “Everyone is concerned about you going to a different country where, at least what the media portrays of it is they don’t care about the safety and health of their citizens.” She’s been home in Singapore since NYU went remote in mid-March — New York was the hardest-hit state at that point, with tens of thousands of confirmed cases. Tan will be coming back, though. Her parents were reluctant, but she’s already signed a lease on her off-campus apartment, so they’d be paying the rent either way.
“I am simply scared to get sick,” said Vita Raskevičiūtė, a University of Pennsylvania student from Lithuania. “I know that some people in the US simply lack collective responsibility and refuse to comply with safety regulations.” Several students expressed worry about medical care in the US — hospitals in some regions are still overflowing with COVID-19 cases. But Raskevičiūtė is also coming back. Lithuania is seven hours ahead of Philadelphia, and she’d need to attend class late at night if she stayed home.
“Some people in the US simply lack collective responsibility”
The logistics of returning in the midst of the pandemic add another layer of stress. Tan was already planning her travel back in July; the flights she usually takes aren’t operating, and she’s had to research which countries she can and can’t pass through. US embassies and consulates around the world suspended routine services between March and mid-July, which has made it difficult for Raskevičiūtė to secure the documents she needs to get back.
Others won’t return at all. Seventy percent of respondents to the IIE survey expect some of their international students not to be on campus this semester. Eighty-eight percent expect international enrollment to decrease.
Akai, a senior at the University of Texas who requested that I withhold her last name for privacy reasons, will be taking her fall courses from her home in China. It won’t be easy. She’ll need to stay up late — her classes, scheduled for early afternoon in Austin, will take place at 3AM in her city. She’ll also use a VPN to access some of her work, which is sometimes slow and unstable. During the spring semester, connectivity issues sometimes caused her to miss parts of lectures.
Akai prefers that situation, though, to being in the US. “I can do whatever in China,” she says. While America’s COVID-19 cases rise, China has contained the virus — life in most of the country is returning to normal. Akai spent the first part of her summer hanging out with friends, shopping, taking a class, and trying new restaurants. If she were to return to Texas, “I would freak out and be miserable and stay alone in my apartment all day.”
A long-lasting statement
It’s clear that regardless of what policies are passed this semester, the short-lived directive — and America’s pandemic response as a whole — will have impacts beyond the fall 2020 semester.
America’s image has suffered internationally since Trump took office, in part due to a perception that the country doesn’t consider other nations’ interests. The ICE directive only adds to that narrative and will drive students around the world to study elsewhere, Gaston believes. “Everything you do to international students affects how the rest of the world views us. I think it makes it harder for universities to market to international students because it’s clear that just being admitted to the university and getting your student visa doesn’t actually mean you’ll be able to come to school and attend.”
That could spell trouble for American universities. International students are a significant revenue source — they often pay out-of-state tuition and don’t qualify for financial aid at many colleges. NAFSA estimated that international students contributed $41 billion to the US economy during the 2018-2019 academic year and supported over 400,000 jobs.
Even students who had previously planned to work in the US after graduation are changing their minds. The number of international college students who have stayed to work in the US via OPT has grown in the past few years — 223,085 students participated in the 2018-2019 academic year alone. Research has shown that higher OPT participation is associated with lower unemployment among US workers and increased innovation.
But those days may be over. “The lasting impact of such a careless policy is perception, the perception that the US doesn’t want foreign students,” Murali Bashyam, managing partner of Bashyam Shah Immigration Law Group said. “Instead of coming to the US, foreign students will go to Canada, Australia, or elsewhere, all of whom are waiting for them with favorable immigration policies. Maybe the next Tesla will be started in Canada instead of the US.”
Trump has toyed with the idea of suspending OPT but has not yet done so. Still, the threat of suspension, combined with the ICE directive, has shaken some students’ faith.
Akai isn’t sure if she’ll return to America. She’s a classical archaeology major but hopes to become a game designer or an English tutor. She’d been planning to stay in the US and pursue a PhD. “But now I don’t want to, because of the US government’s attitude and treatment towards international students.”
For a while, Poole had also planned to build a life in the US after graduation. She was hoping to move out West to pursue her love of skiing. Since July, that has changed. “Given how ICE and the Trump government have responded to this pandemic, I’ve realized that it’s best for me to bring my life and experiences elsewhere,” she said.
“I came to the United States during a time in which I saw there was this politically, socially, culturally transformative moment. I thought ‘Wow, this is a great time to come to the US.’ Trump was just elected, people were rethinking what it means to be an American. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would also be arriving at a time when a government is making it extremely clear that they don’t want people like me around.”
Poole is considering moving to New Zealand, Australia, or the European Union — “places where my immigration status isn’t a defining factor of my experience.” She’s not quite sure yet where she wants to live — but she knows it isn’t America.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Dilys Tan Chiat’s surname. We regret the error.