'I would be forfeiting my education': International students share how new ICE rules impact them

An iron gate at Harvard University. On Wednesday, Harvard and the Massachusettes Institute of Technology sued the Trump administration in federal court over new guidelines that ban international students taking online classes from staying in the country.
EvgeniiAnd | Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted college students across the country — including the more than 1 million international students who choose to study in the United States each year. 

On Monday, the Immigration Custom and Enforcement agency, known as ICE, made an announcement that directly impacts these students.

"The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States," reads the new regulations. "Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings."

According to the new rules, international students taking all of their courses online (as millions of students are doing right now) will be forced to leave the country. 

"When I first saw the news, I was shocked," says Josh Lin, a second-year law student at NYU who is originally from China and hopes to practice both in the private sector and in human rights law. 

"I can't believe he actually did this," he says, referring to President Donald Trump. 

Indeed, many of the students CNBC Make It spoke to saw the measures as a reflection of two of the Trump Administration's political priorities: limiting immigration as well as reopening schools and businesses, even as U.S. cases of Covid-19 reach new heights.

"The directive issued by the Trump Administration is the latest in a string of attacks against both immigrant and international students, as well as institutions of higher education," says Regina Calcaterra, a New York-based lawyer and who serves on the board of the State University of New York at New Paltz. "The Monday directive forces colleges and universities nationwide into a state of disarray by threatening the livelihood of all enrolled students. The effect of the directive would not only be to place barriers upon the time-honored tradition of allowing F-1 visa holders to study in the U.S., but also to remove the tuition dollars that are needed to ensure that students will be returning to safe facilities when they do reopen."

In response to the new regulations, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the Trump administration in federal court on Wednesday. MIT plans to hold classes online and in-person and Harvard plans to hold all of their classes online.

"I commend Harvard and MIT for taking the lead with this important litigation, and I am optimistic regarding its success," says Calcaterra. 

The University of California system filed a suit against the Trump Administration shortly after Harvard and MIT; dozens of other schools also announced plans to file amicus briefs in support of the lawsuits.  

Harvard and MIT sue Homeland Security over student visa rule changes
Harvard and MIT sue Homeland Security over student visa rule changes

"The Trump administration is forcing U.S. colleges and universities to choose between losing all of their foreign national students or resuming in-person programming and risking the health of all of their students, faculty, staff and other workers," says employment and immigration attorney Diane Hernandez, adding that the policy "puts foreign students in the untenable situation of finding a school that will allow a late transfer and risk the possibility of being exposed to the Covid virus, or leaving the U.S. and possibly abandoning their plans to study in the U.S."

In order to navigate the new ruling, many international students are attempting to take at least one class in person. Students have organized Google docs to help domestic students give international students access to these often limited classes. 

And schools such as New York University, have committed to working with international students so that they have access to in-person classes so that they meet the new ICE requirements.

But despite these efforts, the challenges facing international students are significant. CNBC Make It spoke with international students, many under the condition of complete or partial anonymity, to see how the new measures impact them and their communities. 

Closed borders and sold-out flights

For many of the students CNBC Make It spoke with, traveling home before the semester begins is extremely difficult and expensive — if not impossible. 

Countries around the world have fully or partially closed their borders in order to stem the spread of coronavirus and in many cases, government-issued "repatriation" or "rescue" flights are their only options.

One student CNBC Make It spoke with was set to begin a master's degree in international economics and finance on July 13 at a school that has decided to hold all classes online. 

"I am currently in the United States and need to return home to Mumbai before July 13th," she says. "Tickets on the rescue mission flights before July 13th are sold out which, makes it difficult for me to return home."

A second-year graduate student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design says that returning to the country she was born in will take months. 

"I'm from Trinidad and Tobago and our borders, like a few other countries, are completely closed to everyone, including citizens," she says. "The process to get on a repatriation flight will take probably several more months into the semester."

Public health concerns

Then, there are concerns that travel, as well as in-person classes, are detrimental to public health. 

"It feels like the government is forcing us to put ourselves in danger, in harm's way," says the Harvard grad student. "This would essentially put other people in harm's way by forcing a million people or so to suddenly go through airports"

She says she supports Harvard's decision to hold all classes online, describing the layout of the design school as a "potential petri dish"

"[Harvard] strongly believes that it's not a good idea to have classes in person, and I agree. And it doesn't seem necessary since we've gone through all of this planning to have good online classes for the fall," she says. "It feels like we're being targeted in order to force the schools to open."

"A very important aspect of the guideline is that they're essentially encouraging the spreading of the virus from one continent to another continent. I think this is very risky for public health concerns," says Lin. 

Safety issues at home

For some students, returning home includes an even wider range of serious safety issues. 

"My family lives in a very toxic, homophobic environment. It's not a safe environment," says an undergraduate senior computer science student originally from Colombia. "And I'm one of the lucky ones, to be honest. There are friends of mine who are going back to countries where there's no electricity, where there's a dictatorship going on, or there's war and they can't come back if they leave."

She continues, "Home is not a safe environment for everyone. Not everyone has the privilege to just go home and take online classes. There are people that live in places where their cities have been bombed, or there's no electricity, or there's no Wi-Fi, or there's no food stability."

"When I read the amendment, I was in shock," says an undergraduate junior studying finance and information systems. "I left Syria in the middle of the war. My mom was killed because of the war. So it's really not the safest place for me to be." 

These college seniors had job offers lined up–then the pandemic hit
These college seniors had job offers lined up–then the pandemic hit

"I would be forfeiting my education"

The student from Syria adds that because of Trump's travel ban on the country, which also targets several other Muslim-majority countries, he would likely not be able to return to the United States to finish his degree.

"If I go back to Syria, and I want to come back for my last semester, I'll be barred from entering the United States again," he says. "I would be forfeiting my education."

Some students tell CNBC Make It that leaving the United States would require them to take live online courses in the middle of the night or early in the morning because of differences in time zones, making it difficult to learn or participate. 

Others mention that because their college experience has been based around the United States' legal, financial and technological structures, their educations will not be universally relevant in other countries. 

For instance, Lin points out that law students in the United States are trained to take local bar exams that are not applicable to other countries. 

"We are good people"

Indeed, students like Lin emphasize that international students choose to study in this country because they want to be "part of the American Dream."

"Chinese international students, especially law students, come to law school in the States because they truly believe in democracy and believe in American values. International students are here to contribute," he says. "A core American value is to embrace immigrants and to embrace foreign talents. That's why I came to America. And I just wish they would uphold that spirit."

"I am contributing to this country," says the Harvard grad student. "But I'm being just forced to be split from people I love and from a place that I've considered my home." 

"Most international students pay full tuition. International students pay taxes. I study here, and I do research that helps the university and helps this country," says the student from Colombia. "I'm not doing any harm by studying from my dorm."

"I really hope that people understand that we international students are valuable and we are good people, because I've seen a lot of people demonize us," says the student from Syria. "We are just people who are trying to help. We're not people who should be hated for just being students, for just being people who want to get educated and learn and be better."

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