With leases signed, tickets booked, deposits paid, and about a month for schools to reopen, the recent U.S. directive requiring F-1 student visa holders to be on campus this fall has hung a looming cloud of uncertainty over Indian students.
The announcement by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) last week that international students must attend college or university in person — and not solely online — has created panic among international students, said Sudhanshu Kaushik, the founder of the North American Association of Indian Students (NAAIS).
This directive has “completely uprooted financially, socially and even physically” immigrant students from the United States, Kaushik said. With the ruling coming this close to the fall semester, students have paid tuition, some having taken loans for tuition and school costs.
Like American students, many have signed leases for the 2020 academic year.
Kaushik said he feels the U.S. government has “washed their hands” of immigrant students when dealing with the pandemic.
Jaskirat Panjrath, 19, a freshman at the Parsons School of Design in New York, came to the U.S. because the education system here was the best, he said. He has gotten a taste of that education, but as COVID-19 emerged, Panjrath said his reality transformed, he said.
“America is no more the land of dreams or whatever it claims to be,” he added. “There is no coming in here and, like, settling in, you know, trying to work toward the American dream or so.”
“This entire thing's, just caused a lot of anxiety, and added a lot more uncertainty to the uncertainty,” he said. “[It’s] filling this entire bucket of uncertainty and it's like overflowing but like they’re still pouring more uncertainty.”
Panjrath said some of his classmates and colleagues left the U.S. in March, when the COVID pandemic started to shutter campuses and businesses in the U.S., to be with their families. He spent $2,000 to get home to New Delhi, he said.
Some have returned to prepare for fall coursework, he said, paying deposits on or moving into apartments in anticipation of the academic year. Now, he said, they don’t know what the future may hold for them.
“That's so much financial burden on someone who's just like, what 19 right now,” Panjrath said.
Students from India are the second-largest group of international students in the United States. As of 2019, over 200,000 students were in the United States to pursue higher education. Many study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs.
India reported its largest one-day increase of COVID-19 cases – 28,701 – on July 13.
Earlier this year, the U.S. government suspended work visas for internationals -- including the H1-B visas. Many international students stay on a visa track from the F-1 to Optional Practical Training (OPT) after graduation to H1-B work visas and eventually to green cards, or permanent residency.
“We always thought there was another shoe dropping like after the H1-B ruling … but this just seems drastic and cruel,” Bansari Kamdar, a master’s student in applied economics at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
“If the universities are going to have to keep their doors open that means that there's a greater risk for everyone else to get COVID too, not just international students,” Kamdar said. “I don't think the administration's thinking about students in general.”
Harvard and MIT have filed a lawsuit against the government, asserting that ICE’s ruling has left universities in “the untenable situation” of either largely moving classes online or “to attempt, with just weeks before classes resume, to provide in-person education.” Universities including Brown, Yale, Northwestern, and others have also filed an amicus brief supporting the lawsuit.
Some universities are providing a hybrid curriculum with some online and some in-person classes to meet the requirement.
Sixty percent say they are planning for an in-person semester, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education, which since March has been tracking which colleges and universities will teach online, in person or a hybrid of both.
An additional 24% say they are planning a hybrid model (part in class, part online), and 7.2% are undecided or undeclared.
Nine percent of 1,090 U.S. universities are planning for a fall semester exclusively online.
The continual growth of international students studying in the United States contributed $41 billion and supported 458,290 jobs to the U.S. economy during the 2018-2019 academic year, according to NAFSA.
The United States hit an all-time high of 1,095,299 international students, mostly from China, in 2019, according to the Institute of International Education. But the rate of growth showed flattening for two years prior.