Despite I.C.E. Policy Rescission, International Students Still Face Challenges

For eight nerve-wracking days, Fouad Dakwar ’22 confronted the possibility of being forced to leave the U.S., which he has called home since he was two years old. Dakwar has lived with his family in New York city for 18 years with an F-1 student visa. Although his circumstances are unusual compared to the typical international student in the U.S., Dakwar,  like many of the 1 million F-1 visa holders, faced the threat of deportation if the Immigation and Customs Enforcement’s July 6th guidelines had gone into effect. When the policy was rescinded on July 14, Dakwar’s fear of deportation was alleviated. Nonetheless, he remained concerned because aspects of the rescinded policy will continue to impact first year internationals.  Incoming international students will still be required to attend at least one in-person class to study in the U.S. — a fact that remains little known outside of affected students and administrators.  

“If I were starting out at Swarthmore this next year, I would be screwed again. [I.C.E. rescinding its July 6th guidelines is a] bittersweet sort of celebration because I know they’re gonna keep trying to pull something else in terms of this anti-immigrant rhetoric and platform,” Dakwar said. “[Anxiety] is what the Trump administration preys on.”

Dakwar described the non-existent coverage of how first year internationals are impacted — and the decreased advocacy for these students — as a familiar I.C.E. tactic in manipulating the media cycle. 

 “[I.C.E. is] really good at navigating media attention. Even though this bigger, broader sort of policy [from July 6th] got shut down, I.C.E. is going to try and subtly institute a less extreme version of it now, and I’m worried that people are not giving it the same attention.”

Dakwar’s comments point to the celebratory way notable media outlets have covered the swift and dramatic rescission of the July 6th policy. Less than five minutes into the hearing for Harvard/MIT v. The Department of Homeland Security on July 14, both parties informed the court that they arrived at a resolution. The D.H.S. and I.C.E. rescinded the guidelines they introduced through their policy directive on July 6 and in their FAQ document on July 7. I.C.E. declared that it would revert back to the guidelines it released on March 9, allowing international college students to study online remotely, whether that be in the United States or in their home countries, without losing their Student and Exchange Visitor Information System status. 

A July 24 email from Assistant Dean and Director of International Student Programs Jennifer Marks-Gold outlines Swarthmore’s current policy for international students based on the most recent I.C.E. guidelines.

 Returning students, most of whom already have an active status in SEVIS, may take a full online course load of three or more classes in the US, either on campus or abroad at home. If a returning student decides to take a leave of absence in the fall, they will need a new I-20. New students who have an initial status in SEVIS, however, are still subjected to the same restrictions of the July 6 guidelines. To live on campus, they must take at least one class in person; if they choose to remain home, they may take their classes online, and their I-20 form will be delayed to Spring 2021. If international students choose to study in the United States at an in-person or hybrid institution, and their institution switches to a fully-online curriculum midway through a semester, the FAQ document also states that the international student will not be deported.

Difficulties Continue for Incoming Internationals:

Despite this apparent victory, difficulties for international students persist. Students in New or Initial status on SEVIS are barred from entering the United States if they have the intention of attending a U.S. school entirely remotely. 

Kelvin Darfour ’24, a rising freshman from Ghana, expressed his confusion and disappointment by the updated I.C.E. policy that seemed to disproportionately target freshmen. 

“I actually didn’t see the reason why freshmen … should take at least a hybrid course or one in-person class… It’s quite unfair. Honestly. It is really unfair. It’s sad to me. It really saddens my heart that we have to go through this, especially during this time. Being freshmen, we already don’t know what to expect about college life and all that, then [I.C.E. is] hitting us with all these rules and restrictions. It’s so sad… if you actually think about it, nothing has changed for first-year students from the original guidelines released in early July,” Darfour said. 

Despite the fact that he has to risk his health by taking at least one in-person class, Darfour still plans to come to Swarthmore this Fall. For Darfour, studying remotely from Ghana is nearly impossible because of his poor network connectivity and the extreme time-zone difference. An obstacle that still remains, however, is that Ghana’s borders are currently closed and the United States embassy there has not opened to file visas for students. 

Many other students face similar challenges with visas and plane tickets, forcing them to remain in their home country. One such student is Ariel Zhao ’24, an incoming freshman from China. 

“[Many] US ambassadors left China in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak. The embassies only deal with urgent appointments where F-1 visa is excluded. Students who made appointments very early have also been told that their appointments were cancelled,” Zhao wrote in an email to The Phoenix. 

Zhao’s incapability to acquire a visa means that she has to study at home this fall. Planning to begin college online, half a world away, and 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, Zhao expressed concern about how she is going to connect to the school community. 

“I really want to get involved in the students community even though I cannot be in America myself,” she wrote. “I have thought about holding activities remotely online, but then figured out it may not be a good idea because of different time zones and possible network problems. So I really don’t know how.”. 

Fearing higher rates of COVID-19 in the US,  as well as travelling concerns have also convinced some international students in the Class of 2024 to delay college altogether.. Bua Boonkongchuen ’25, a student from Thailand, decided to take a leave of absence due to the dangers and complications of international travel. 

“I believe campus would probably be quite safe, but traveling to and from America [is not safe]. Also Thailand still doesn’t let everyone in right now. If you went to the States, to come back to Thailand you would have to apply for the Government’s permission and then you have to do two weeks of Government quarantine as soon as you get back to Thailand,” Boonkongchuen said. 

Returning Students’ Response to July 24th Update

In response to the July 24th I.C.E. policy update, The Phoenix reached out to some students that we’ve interviewed for an earlier article related to the July 6th policy to investigate how their plans have been impacted.

The July 24th decision came as a relief to “Will,” a rising senior from Asia who wished to be anonymous. Initially, Will was taken aback by the I.C.E. regulation’s anti-immigrant tone and the lack of care that the D.H.S. seemed to have for the health and safety of international students and the broader school communities. Furthermore, Will was worried that the policies would affect his eligibility for Optional Practical Training, a temporary employment authorization that allows international students of F-1 visas to work in the United States after they graduate. 

“The rescinding is potentially very helpful; it would help me graduate on time, with OPT and [remote study], as per my preference,” Will said. 

Nonetheless, Will decided to take a leave of absence. 

“I’m planning on pushing my graduation date to try to minimize the economic fallout of the coronavirus … I’m taking a leave for a semester to continue [working] at my internship … the only consequence is that I’ll have to repay the [SEVIS] fee.” Will explained. 

Ghazi Randhawa ’22, a student who has been on campus since Swarthmore’s evacuation during the middle Spring Break, was also glad to hear that I.C.E. was rescinding the policies. 

“I honestly felt very relieved and very happy that I won’t have to devote any more mental energy to [the proposed policies]. And I am also relieved that a lot of my peers won’t have to go through tricky situations or bad situations to get the education they’re supposed to be receiving normally. It was quite a big feeling of relief,” Randhawa said.

Initially, Randhawa’s main issue was that his desired courses for the Fall semester were all going to be held remotely. To adhere to the July 6th regulations, he would have to take at least one hybrid class, which would conflict with his desire to take only classes essential to his major. 

“Now I can take the courses I want without having to cater for I.C.E.’s requirement… [For the Fall semester] I get to [follow] what my actual plan was… to just take the classes I need for my majors and stay on campus.” 

Most international students can also now live off-campus under the new ICE guidelines. This was great news to Theodore, an anonymous senior, who signed a 12-month lease for an apartment in the borough before he knew that the Fall semester was going to be online. To Theodore, this is a cheaper and safer alternative to living in the college dorms. 

“I felt a great sense of relief that my original housing plans can work out now. I also felt a sense of surprise given how bad things have been that something good like this could happen,” Theodore said. “Off-campus housing is much more affordable, and I’ll be living with my close friends in the same apartment. I also have the housing security throughout the year because of my 12-month lease instead of having uncertainty for periods such [as] between Thanksgiving and February.”

In an email to The Phoenix, Rachel Head, the Associate Dean of Students and Director of Student Engagement, elaborated on housing availability for international students during breaks, J-term, and the spring semester. 

“The Office of Student Engagement will provide an opportunity for all international students to apply for winter break and spring semester housing. Applications for break housing will be made available in early October and, as always, we will partner with the International Student Programs office when reviewing applications and communicating with students about options,” Dean Head wrote. 

And for Dakwar, who is no longer under the threat of deportation, the current moment nonetheless invites contemplation on the visible and invisible challenges posed by the American immigration system.  Dakwar expressed gratitude for not only the college accepting his request to study on campus in the fall and ICE rescinding its July 6th guidelines, but his overall positionality as an immigrant. 

“I recognize my luck and privilege, when it comes to immigration,” Dakwar said. “There are a lot of people that are not given the same opportunities and the same good news that a lot of us, international students in higher education, just got with that win.”

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