International Students Cornered As ICE Releases New Guidelines

New ICE Guidelines: an Overview

  1. Since Swarthmore College is on the hybrid model, international students at the college must take at least one in-person class to maintain an active Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) status.
  2. International students cannot study entirely remotely from an off-campus location in the U.S., otherwise they will face deportation.
  3. International students will still be enrolled as Swarthmore College students and can take online classes if they choose to study remotely from their home country. But, if they decide to study remotely from their home country, their SEVIS status will be deactivated.
  4. A deactivated SEVIS status does not have any negative connotations. In this case, the deactivation will just be classified as an “Authorized Early Withdrawal.”
  5. Seniors who take the Fall semester entirely remotely might encounter problems getting into the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, as eligibility for OPT is dependent on at least two consecutive semesters in the United States. 
  6. The January term (J-term), Swarthmore’s fully-remote experience from January 4 to January 29, during which students can take one class, is not considered a fully online semester, but rather as a winter break with the option for students to voluntarily take classes. This means that taking J-term classes will not threaten students’ SEVIS status. 
  7. Harvard and MIT’s lawsuit hearing challenging ICE’s new guidelines is set for July 14. 

The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency’s new guidelines pulled back temporary exemptions that were placed in the spring semester which allowed international students to study online. This decision blindsided many international students who now find themselves in scenarios where they have to risk their health and safety to return to campus and retain their SEVIS status, as well as find a flight from their home countries to the United States in time for the start of the semester.

“Will,” a rising senior from Asia who has requested to remain anonymous, expressed his concern that the new guidelines were more a reflection of the current administration’s “anti-immigrant” attitude rather than a move with tangible safety and public health benefits. 

“When the decision first came out, I was pretty angry. Taking stock of the whole thing, I would say the decision is, among other things, short-sighted and it causes a lot of needless, emotional [distress]. You’re possibly forcing international students to expand into the U.S. at a time when it’s probably safest for them to stay home. You’re forcing students into campuses and in-person classes, when they should stay in their dorms and minimize contact,” he said. “Putting the safety of students at risk is needlessly cruel, and it doesn’t really accomplish anything.”

In response to the quick outbreak of COVID-19 and many universities’ evacuation of their campuses during the spring semester, ICE announced in a Q&A form on March 13, 2020 that international students who have chosen to study remotely either in the U.S. or abroad will be able to maintain their student status and visa. In order to be legally recognized as an F-1 international student, students are required to maintain a full course of study (which in Swarthmore’s case means at least three credits per semester). Under pre-pandemic ICE policy, an active international student is not allowed to count more than one online class towards their full course of study requirement per semester. The March 13 policy change granted temporary exemptions that recognize online class credits toward a student’s eligibility to be in the United States. 

On July 6, 2020, ICE released new guidelines that pulled back the temporary exemptions, forcing international students to leave the U.S. or transfer to another institution if their universities do not open for on-campus classes this fall. Notably, international students currently in the U.S. who are enrolled in colleges that choose to conduct a fully virtual semester face possible deportation. On the other hand, international students enrolled in institutions with hybrid, online and in-person, semesters who are in their home countries need to travel back to the U.S. in order to maintain their SEVIS status. Most importantly, however, a termination of a student’s active SEVIS status does not bar them from being actively enrolled in Swarthmore or taking Swarthmore classes from abroad. International students are allowed to continue to study online from abroad while their SEVIS record is deactivated. 

To study in the United States, international students must have the proper documentation and legal status, the latter being the factor that is most affected by the new ICE guidelines. Document-wise, undergraduate students without American citizenship typically need an I-20 form, which is a “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status” from their college confirming their enrollment and an F-1 (student) visa. As for their legal status, international students’ activity into and within the United States is approved and tracked through SEVIS, a web-based system that collects data related to the international student. Students’ SEVIS status is controlled by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), a subsidiary program of the Department of Homeland Security, as per the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. If their status is deactivated for any reason, international students’ will not be able to enter the United States to study — even if they hold the proper documentation. 

International students currently face many degrees of uncertainty, ranging from the ever-changing coronavirus situation both within the US and their respective home country, as well as the developing lawsuit’s status and varying individual circumstances. According to Ryan MacMorris, the international student coordinator at the International Student Center, as of fall 2019, there were 238 international students at Swarthmore, and there are 63 new students who were accepted for Fall 2020. Taking into account the 61 graduates in the class of 2020, there will be 240 international students currently enrolled at the college. 

Although international students at Swarthmore are seemingly exempt from outright deportation as the college has committed to a hybrid model, the options available to Swarthmore internationals are still ambiguous, differing for each student depending on their personal circumstance and location. According to the new ICE guidelines, only students enrolled in schools that offer entirely online coursework can study remotely from their home country while maintaining an active SEVIS status. Under a hybrid model such as Swarthmore, international students must come to campus and take at least one in-person class if they want to maintain their SEVIS status. This does not mean that Swarthmore international students on an F-1 visa who are in their home countries must come to campus to study. A student’s SEVIS status does not affect their ability to attend classes and accumulate college credits. In other words, students in their home countries can still enroll in Swarthmore classes and acquire credits towards their college degree despite not having an active status in SEVIS; they will, however, need to be re-issued an I-20 and pay relevant fees to reactivate their SEVIS status should they choose to return to America for on-campus study at a later date. Students who have their SEVIS record terminated for more than five months and/or students who have spent more than five months outside of the United States during an absence of school must reactivate their record by first obtaining a new I-20 form and then paying for a new SEVIS ID, which for F-1 students cost $350. As Director Marks-Gold explained, a deactivated SEVIS status is classified as an “Authorized Early Withdrawal,” and there are no negative connotations to a voluntarily deactivated SEVIS status. 

The School’s Response

In response to the newly announced July 6 guidelines, Swarthmore’s Director of International Student Programs, Jennifer Marks-Gold promptly sent an email to all international students that same afternoon informing them that the school is aware of the new guidelines and is consulting with school officials to interpret the guidelines’ ramifications. The International Students Center also scheduled three Q & A Zoom meetings on July 13 at 8:30 a.m., 12:00 p.m., and 8:00 p.m EST. 

On July 8, President Valerie Smith sent an email condemning the new federal guidelines, calling them a ‘nefarious assault on immigrants’. 

Two days later, on July 10, Swarthmore College, joined an amicus brief opposing ICE for their new guidelines which would discontinue temporary exemptions for international students taking online classes in Fall 2020. Filed initially by Harvard and MIT, the lawsuit sparked a nationwide legal battle against ICE. Soon, over 200 universities joined the legal battle through an amicus brief, while USC, Stanford, Caltech, Pomona, and many other universities filed their own lawsuit. Harvard and MIT’s lawsuit hearing is set for 3:00 p.m. EST, Tuesday, July 14 in the Massachusetts civil court. 

In addition to the possibility of the Massachusetts court not being able to block ICE’s policy change, there are two potential outcomes.  According to Director Marks-Gold in a Zoom Q & A session on July 13, the most optimal outcome for international students is a court ruling that requests ICE to extend their March 13 policy for the spring of 2020 into the fall. The temporary suspension of the regulation around remote learning — which ICE permitted in the spring — would allow international students the most freedom in choosing their options for the fall. A less optimal option would be for the court to simply rescind the July 6th policy without insisting on the reinstatement of the March 13th temporary suspension. In such a case, there is a possibility that, instead of extending the March 13th policy, ICE will revert back to their pre-pandemic policy, which, among its many repercussions, will only allow international students to take one class remotely if they wish to remain in the U.S with an active SEVIS status.  

Internationals in Their Home Countries

None of the new ICE regulations acknowledge international students’ possible concerns in regards to their health, the additional financial strain, or the inability to enter the United States due to flight restrictions or closed borders.

Mai Miura ’23, is a rising sophomore from Japan who has been in her home in Tokyo since March 24. Initially, Miura wanted to return to campus to study, due to her struggles during the latter, online part of the spring semester. 

“I think the biggest problem for me was the time difference. While some professors recorded their lectures and made it available for everyone to watch later, some didn’t … especially those discussion-based classes. Also, being at home was just very distracting and I have other responsibilities around the house too which would interfere with my studying once I have regular classes,” Miura said. 

As COVID cases consistently rose in the U.S., however, Miura started to question her stance and leaned more towards staying close to her family in Japan where COVID-19 cases have steadily dropped.

“The U.S. is just crazy right now with COVID-19. So, obviously Japan is safer in that sense, and I have my family here. Also, I just don’t want to go to the hospital in the U.S., you know? And I don’t want to be constantly worrying about when I would have to leave the U.S. again,” she said. “I’m not really sure how exactly Swat is going to ensure everyone’s safety and health… I think for us international students, we can’t just immediately go home when [something bad] happens or having to evacuate in like three days, which is what happened in March. So I don’t want to deal with that again.”

Additionally, Miura is currently on scholarships from several Japanese foundations, some of which are suspending scholarships of students who decide to go back to study in countries that they deem as dangerous. 

“The foundations are saying that they’re going to suspend our scholarship if we go back to study abroad in countries they think are dangerous, and the U.S.’s situation is really bad right now so it’s most likely that I will get my scholarship suspended if I decide to go. So while ICE is trying to get me back on campus, my financial situation doesn’t really allow me to do that,” Miura said. 

Sannan Sharif Dhillon ’23, a rising sophomore from Pakistan, shared Miura’s worry and fear of returning to the U.S. To him, ICE is overlooking the range in difficulty different international students experience travelling overseas. 

“I think [the ICE guidelines] are absolutely abhorrent and insensitive. It targets one of the most vulnerable student groups in the U.S. Contrary to the common perception, many international students are on substantial financial aid and can neither ‘transfer to a school that’s offering in-person classes’ nor go back and risk losing their visas. My country has the fourth worst passport in the world — I am even more worried for my Irani/Iraqi friends who have to go through extensive background checks to get their visas. The decision forced international students many of whom are immunocompromised to travel back to their countries — many of which may be even more dangerous than the U.S. We all know how dangerous flights are because of how easy it is to contract the virus,” he said. “So much travelling is not only extremely dangerous, it is also quite expensive. I have to stay here at home to help support my family, especially if one of my parents gets sick, I really want to be here to be able to take care of them.”

Internationals in the U.S.    

International students cannot take a full virtual semester if they are currently in the U.S. regardless of whether their school is on the hybrid or virtual model; if they wish to remain legally in the United States, they will have to enroll in at least one in-person class or face deportation. Moreover, the July 6th guidelines state that should a hybrid institution change their operation and become fully virtual mid-semester, international students will need to either depart from the U.S. or transfer to another hybrid institution for in-person instruction.

Currently, there are 42 students who have been on campus since the school’s abrupt evacuation during spring break, many of whom are international. One of these students is Ghazi Randhawa ’22 from Pakistan. While he is confident he won’t have any problems taking classes on-campus this fall, Randhawa is concerned about what the fully online J-term would mean for him and his ability to come back for the Spring Semester 2021. 

“[ICE] might want, at the end of Thanksgiving break when the college goes online, [international students] to leave the country. So I guess I will be forced to go back to Pakistan for J-term and two weeks before and after that. And that means I would have to figure out what to do for spring semester. Like should I come back or not? …That’s the main effect right now,” he said.

(After this quote was taken, Director Marks-Gold elaborated on the J-term, saying that it should be treated as a winter vacation with the option to voluntarily take classes instead of an online semester. As a result, there is no consequence to taking the J-term from wherever place a student happens to be at that time; the SEVIS record remains activated.)

Randhawa’s biggest worry is about going back to his home country — in addition to the distractions of being home, there is the risk of infecting his relatives. 

“I haven’t gone back home since last summer. So if I go back, cultural expectations would force me to meet up with my extended family. I have a lot of old [relatives], my mom is the youngest sibling in her side of the family and all my uncles and aunts are really old. So that meant that I would have been making it unsafe for them. Especially if I went around, like apart from the flight and the chance of getting coronavirus [there], there’s also the chance that if I go around just being myself, like meeting old friends, I might get coronavirus, and I might be transporting it all to all those elder members of my family,” Randhawa said. 

International students who have originally chosen to stay in the U.S. after the pandemic also did so because of the instability that characterize current U.S. visa policy.  “Andy,” a rising senior from a country that has faced increasing visa restrictions from the U.S. who requested anonymity, has been in the United States since the spring semester.  After initially staying in on-campus housing that was available for select students, he is now living with friends in an apartment in Swarthmore. He made the decision to stay in the U.S. rather than go back home based on an expectation of capricious visa restrictions. 

“I just didn’t consider the alternative where I take a semester off, if I couldn’t have been assured that that wouldn’t be the end of [my visa]. If I can take a semester off and then graduate in the fall of 2021 perhaps I would have considered it, but given the current situation that we don’t know how COVID is going to develop and how the situation with visas and borders might get a little worse — I can’t be sure if I take a semester off and go home that I’ll be coming back, and taking a year off for me just doesn’t seem like something that I would like to do. So it seems like I would much rather just continue to do the virtual semester, though it is not ideal,” he said. “Even before [the July 6 ICE policy change] happened, earlier this spring, actually, my country got added to basically a new travel ban, but this was for immigrant visas [and not necessarily directly impacting student visas]. Even so, it was definitely spooky — it definitely showed a trend where these kinds of things are going. So, I guess I am just not too inclined at this point by the option of leaving the country, because I’m not sure if that’s a safe thing for me to do if I want to finish my degree here,” he said.

International students who are in the U.S. but not living in on-campus housing also face a different challenge. “Theodore,” a rising senior from China who chose to remain anonymous, stayed on campus in the spring and just signed a year-long lease at an apartment in Swarthmore borough.  

“At the time I thought, ‘thank God I have housing security until I graduate.’ And that was my thought up until this past week when everything just fell apart.  Because this was completely in the back of my mind about how the state departments and the Department of Homeland Security were going to handle how F-1 students can have a legal status in the U.S., I sort of was expecting that they would extend the policy they had last semester, which was that even though international students may have to take all of their classes online, they can still stay legally in the U.S. I think everyone was [expecting this to be the case] because obviously the pandemic is still very present in the U.S.”

According to the model of operation outlined in President Smith’s email on June 30, Swarthmore students who are not living in campus dorms are not allowed to access any campus facilities, making in-person instruction impossible for those who have off-campus accommodations. In doing so, the college essentially requires international students interested in retaining their SEVIS status to live on-campus. 

Theodore said that he hopes Swarthmore would make an exception for him to enroll in in-person classes but still stay in his apartment because he signed a 12-month lease. It is currently unclear, however, whether the college would make such an exception. In a similar situation, “Gabriel,” a rising senior from South Korea who chose to remain anonymous, lived briefly on campus and then couch-surfed with some friends for the spring semester.  He currently lives in an apartment near the college. The prospect of living on-campus is not appealing to him, especially in this time of heightened financial uncertainty. 

“I’ll have to ask the school to get me a dorm during the next semester so I can stay on campus and take in-person classes. And then that means I need to pay room and board, which is pretty expensive,” he said.  “[Finance] is a problem too, because I don’t think my father is doing that well back home because of the economy. So [the school] not reducing tuition also doesn’t really make any sense. That’s a big problem.” 

Both Theodore and Gabriel are also deeply concerned about the enforcement of social distancing guidelines in dormitories.  

“I would prefer not to live on campus because I would have to share spaces with other people and take more risks with my health,” said Theodore. “When I’m in my own apartment. I know I’m really responsible, and I’ve been in really good communication with my roommates about how we [can] keep each other safe and how we [can] properly enforce social distancing. And we ask about if you’re hanging out with friends, whether you socially distance with them, whether you want masks hanging out with them. We’re not allowed to have guests over or go to other people’s places. So I feel safe health-wise.”

Gabriel expressed similar sentiments.

“The social distancing that [the school is] going to employ on campus will be hard to follow, probably,” Gabriel said. “I don’t think students will listen well to the instructions. The idea of pulling people all around from the States [to the school] is not the optimal choice — but like there is stuff that needs to be done. There are some people in the States and a lot of international students who need a place [to stay]. It’s just, it will be pretty different from what people experienced from before.”

OPT/CPT

In addition to complications to students’ ability to study this coming semester and satisfy their graduation requirements in time if they are to miss a semester, the new guidelines pose further complications to student’s eligibility for Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT) programs. OPT is the temporary employment authorization that allows F-1 students to work (typically with pay) in the U.S. for up to twelve months in a field that is directly related to their major of study. STEM majors can apply for a 24-month extension.  An F-1 student can only qualify for OPT, however, if they are enrolled with the required full course load (a three credit minimum per semester at Swarthmore) and after they have studied for a full academic year in a U.S. institution. Under current ICE policy changes, certain student’s eligibility for OPT application could be affected. Upperclassmen who choose or are forced to take a leave of absence will have to complete another full academic year before they regain eligibility.  Seniors who choose to complete their last academic year virtually without an activated SEVIS may be disqualified from application.

CPT is a program that permits international students to work in the U.S. in a field that is integral to their course of study. In contrast with OPT, CPT must be completed before graduation. International students may use this to complete practicums or internships that relate directly to their field of study. The current ICE policy change similarly impacts CPT, as an F-1 student needs to be in status for at least one academic year and has declared a major in order for them to qualify.  

Will, the rising senior from Asia, shared his concerns of how the new guidelines could potentially affect his eligibility for OPT. 

“The SEVP’s guidelines’ side effects affect my eligibility to pursue OPT programs after I graduate… Without OPT, there’s one question of being able to find a job and finding a living in the U.S.… And also, you know, financial questions. There’s just a lot of money we put in to go to Swarthmore, and I think it’s been a great experience, regardless of whether I stay in the U.S. or not, but if I don’t really get to work in the U.S., and I have to be a bit more careful in terms of financing my further education, maybe getting a master’s,” Will said.

If the guidelines do not change or if there are no corrections to interpretations of the guidelines, Will plans to take a leave of absence this upcoming fall semester, and he will return to campus for the spring semester and the fall semester in 2021 as a “super senior” to satisfy the two semesters of enrollment needed to be eligible for OPT. 

The Threat of Deportation

While Fouad Dakwar ’22 also has an F-1 student visa, his circumstances are very different compared to other international students’. Dakwar has lived with his nuclear family in New York City for eighteen years and would be uniquely harmed if the new ICE guidelines would go into effect. At the moment, Dakwar is not in the cohort of students invited back to campus. Although he is requesting an exemption to be on campus, if this request is not approved, he would face possible deportation from a nation he has called home for the majority of his life. Dakwar described this prospect as terrifying.

“There is a chance that if they institute [the ICE guidelines], I would have to live in Israel/Palestine, which I have not done since I was two years old. I don’t speak a word of Hebrew, so I would really struggle there. The time difference would be ridiculous and I don’t have a home there,” Dakwar said. “So [if this policy were to go forth as planned], my whole life would be uprooted.”  

As of now, Dakwar is grateful that Swarthmore stepped up to the plate by publicly speaking out in defense of international students and signing the amicus brief in the lawsuit against ICE. Looking forward, however, Dakwar said he would like to see comprehensively written plans for both best- and worst-case scenarios, which would address individual international students’ needs. Additionally, Dakwar hopes that Swarthmore will continue to honor its commitment to all international students — not just the significant portion of students who can pay full tuition but also those who are marginalized, undocumented, and less privileged. 

“[We need to ask] why all schools across the country are taking a stand now and why they pick and choose when it comes to immigrants,” Dakwar said. “There is this big asylum law change that I have seen very little talk about; meanwhile, my social media and emails were flooded after this F-1 student visa news. It is frustrating when people who have the privilege to move and study in other places are given this greater humanity than people who are literally seeking asylum, or they are not able to live freely in their own country. I hope that people will give the same humanity to those people as they have given me, which I am really thankful for and keep fighting on all fronts to fix our immigration system that is broken all across the board and not just when it comes to higher education.” 

3 thoughts on “International Students Cornered As ICE Releases New Guidelines

  • July 14, 2020 at 2:17 pm
    Permalink

    I hope we will all write our Congressmen and Senators stating the seriousness of this issue.

    President Valerie Smith’s message, above, serves as a good model.

    Reply
  • July 14, 2020 at 2:18 pm
    Permalink

    I hope we will all write our Congressmen and Senators stating the seriousness of this issue.

    President Valerie Smith’s message, above, serves as a good model.

    Reply
  • July 25, 2020 at 8:12 am
    Permalink

    I hope we will all write our Congressmen and Senators stating the seriousness of this issue.

    Reply

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