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The US is showing no mercy for international students even in the middle of a pandemic

Graduates gather at Columbia University during coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Manhattan, New York City
Reuters/Andrew Kelly
Blurry road ahead.
  • Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Update (July 14): A US district judge announced today that the government is rescinding a new visa policy that would have made international students take at least one in-person class.

The over 250,000 Indian students enrolled in US universities now run the risk of being sent packing.

The Donald Trump administration on July 6 tweaked an exemption that allowed foreign students to stay in the US even when most of their classes are being held online amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the fall semester starting in August/September, the US authorities will not issue new visas to students starting at schools or programmes that are fully online nor will Customs and Border Protection (CBP) permit any existing international students to enter the US, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced on July 6.

Students on both the F-1 and M-1 visas will be affected.

Those who are already in the US “must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status,” the notice stated. “If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”

The announcement has led to petitions being circulated as several university professors have objected to the government’s hardline stance. Some even offered to take on international students for in-person study courses.


Experts say the decision is as short-sighted as it is unaccommodating.

The emergency isn’t over

Since as far back as 2003, the F-1 visa has allowed students to take only one class, or three credit hours, online. In March, the government made adjustments for the 2020 spring and summer semesters citing the Covid-19 emergency.

But the Covid-19 emergency in the US is currently far from over. The country tops the charts worldwide for Covid-19 cases and deaths at over 3 million and 132,000, respectively.

The recent tweak to student visa norms may pressurise colleges to reopen faster, which scientists have said may cause cases to skyrocket.


Little wiggle room

The Trump administration’s latest guidelines do provide respite to one section: international students who are enrolled at schools that offer hybrid models—a combination of online and in-person classes. Such students will be allowed to take more than three credit hours online.

However, the window to comply with the new rules is very narrow. For instance, schools have only 10 days to update information about students or courses shifting from in-person to online in the government’s database of students and exchange visitors.

A big debate is also ensuing around the pricing of online classes. “Universities need revenue at the end of the day. They get huge amounts in fees from foreign students,” said Poorvi Chothani, managing partner at immigration law firm LawQuest. “I think they will be clever and reduce fees for some online courses.” At least 36 universities have already slashed tuition costs.

Besides spending money on tuition and boarding, these students contribute to scientific and technical research and add cultural diversity to campuses. All of this is now at stake.


Stupefied students

As all of this plays out, confusion and helplessness are already plaguing the international student community.


Moreover, for international students, going online is not hassle-free.

Many who are in Asia worry about staying up at odd hours to attend classes or missing out due to connectivity issues. Others pointed out that Chinese students, the largest international student population in the US, don’t even have access to Google in the mainland and VPNs aren’t always reliable.


“These things will disadvantage students,” said Chothani. “Frankly, if I was a student or a parent of a student going into university this year, I would say take a gap year and let things settle down. One year in a life span of 70 to 80 years is nothing.”

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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