Some international students say they have been chilled by the U.S. government’s attempt – now rescinded – to compel them to attend class in person this fall during the COVID-19 pandemic or risk losing their visa status.
“It was really scary,” said Yumiko Kishaba from Japan, who studies business administration at the City University of New York. “It's very confusing. It makes us like, I don't know, it's like uncomfortable being here in the U.S.”
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agencies retracted their July 6 ruling minutes before a federal judge was to decide on a lawsuit July 14 brought by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to stop the directive.
Two hundred other colleges and universities submitted amicus briefs, or legal papers supporting the suit. Tech giants Facebook, Apple and Twitter lent their support to the suit, saying it would limit their ability to hire employees. And 15 Republican legislators wrote to ICE Acting Director Matthew Albence asking him to reconsider.
“These students are law-abiding members of our community and are seeking to better themselves with a college education, and our communities are better for it,” wrote the members of Congress.
“They followed the rules, and the rules are being changed on them in the middle of the game,” they continued. “That’s unfair.”
Attorney David Carpenter represents a group of students who filed a similar claim to the universities’ suit against DHS and ICE. Carpenter said he is pleased about ICE’s rescission, but the students’ suit will remain on hold in case the government issues another ruling like the July 6 directive.
“They faced health risks having to return to their home countries to travel,” Carpenter said. “For many of them who are from China, it’s just not practical for them to access their school curriculum abroad, for a variety of reasons, including the time zone difference, and their loss of connections within the school community.”
“I think they ended up having to do the right thing,” said immigration attorney Mercy Changwesha in Durham, N.C., about the government walking back the ruling.
“When this decision came in that international students, who take classes online, are going to have to go home or have to face deportation, it made no sense. We’re in the middle of a pandemic …”
Undergraduate foreign students in the U.S. must carry 12 college credits a semester to remain in legal visa status, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered campuses across the U.S. to avoid the spread of the virus.
For the many students who remained in the U.S., they risked being deported if they took online classes only – as many domestic and international students have been doing since this spring.
For the many students who returned to their home countries when the pandemic emerged in the U.S., they would lose their visa status if they didn’t show up for classes for the fall semester.
Changwesha said she does not expect new international students who would have arrived this fall for the first time to get to the U.S. Most embassies, where students have to be interviewed in person and have their papers processed, are closed.
“So maybe a student who has an admission, but does not have a visa in their hand, might not get the opportunity to go to an embassy to get a visa before school starts in the fall,” she said.
“We expect that embassies are opening up slowly, but for now, most embassies are closed, except for emergencies.”
Changwesha said she tells anxious students to follow the guidance from their colleges and universities. Sign up for classes, keep a full load of 12 credits for undergrads and nine credits for master’s students. Attend those classes.
“You do not have to go home,” she said. “Go with whatever your school is doing: If your school is doing fully online, if your school is doing hybrid classes, go with the flow and follow your guidelines from school.
“Make sure you still attend class … make sure you participate and all that, because you have to maintain your status.
“I’ve talked with a lot of (international) students in the past week. A lot of them wait in that space wondering, ‘Do I just go home?’” Changwesha said. “And I told them, don’t go home yet. It’s a moving situation. Let’s wait and see.”
VOA's Laura Sepulveda and Mike Hove contributed to this report.