Tens of thousands of foreign students in the US have felt as though “suddenly the carpet was pulled out from underneath” as Trump announced to send F-1 and M-1 visa holders back to their countries of origin.

NEW JERSEY — Jacob Chang, a 20-year-old Chinese student at Ohio State University (OSU), never thought that he was at risk of deportation from the US. “We talk about ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement) all the time but it is always in relation to undocumented students, no one ever mentions international students.” 

Chang’s legal status to stay in the country has been challenged by the recent announcement made by US Immigration and Custom Enforcement. It states that all nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 visa holders will be sent back or barred from attending school in America should they only be taking online classes. This decision could potentially impact nearly one million international students in the US, especially if their universities decide to transfer all their teaching online. 

Chang, a political science and psychology major, is a rising junior and has spent two years in America. He is preparing for his LSATs and plans to apply to law school next year. With the backdrop of the unpredictable pandemic, he says, this recent decision further exacerbates the panic and anxiety among foreign students.  “It is really inhumane and cruel.” 

He says going back to China would be devastating for him and it would be nearly impossible to access course materials because of China’s “Great Firewall.” Besides that, “I have a life here,” he said.  “This is my home country now. China is only my country of origin.” 

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have filed lawsuits on Wednesday in a federal court in Boston to challenge this new ICE regulation. More than two dozen universities across America have filed amicus briefs in support of Harvard and MIT lawsuits.  

"We will pursue this case vigorously so that our international students ⁠— and international students at institutions across the country ⁠— can continue their studies without the threat of deportation," Harvard President Lawrence Bacow wrote in a statement addressed to the Harvard community. 

Jenny Lee, a professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, said she was in disbelief when she heard the news. “But soon realized this should not be surprising considering the administration's past anti-immigration proposals and policies,” she said. In a recent Op-Ed, she wrote, that international students should not be treated as “political pawns.” 

Ohio State University announced that for the forthcoming fall semester, it will be adopting a hybrid approach, offering both in-person and online classes. There is a feeling that the recent spike in coronavirus cases in the state may yet place these plans in jeopardy.

Chang is closely monitoring the steps his local government is taking to curb the uptick in cases. He understands that there is a possibility of a complete lockdown which could subsequently mean - according to this new policy - an immediate departure from the country. “The earliest flight I can book back to China is a month later,” he said. 

He thinks that his university could do better to reduce the anxiety and stress this news has caused among many international students. 

Chang, along with some of his friends, started an online petition after ICE’s announcement  demanding OSU to prioritize the interests of its international students. In the letter, they wrote, “We will not wait for passive updates. Instead, we need your support, we need you to stand with us, and we need you to advocate for us.” It received 8,860 signatures until Thursday noon. 

International students contributed nearly $44.7 billion to the US economy in 2018, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). Most of them pay out of pocket, by tapping into their family’s savings or by taking out loans in their home countries. Very few are fortunate to receive financial assistance, especially during their undergraduate studies.

Jacob Chang, a 20-year-old Chinese student at Ohio State University (OSU).
Jacob Chang, a 20-year-old Chinese student at Ohio State University (OSU). ()

Birks Sachdev is a 20-year-old Malaysian, pursuing dual degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Business Administration at the University of California, Berkeley.  His family used their financial savings to pay for his tution thus far. “We are paying full price for our education and now suddenly we are told we cannot stay,” he said. “This is highly unfair.”

Sachdev says that all the news about the H1-B visa ban in June has caused him to worry. With this new rule, he felt like “suddenly the carpet was pulled out from underneath.” Being a foreign student, there were times he felt he could not participate in protests [such as the recent Black Lives Matter protest] due to fear of being arrested by ICE which would then jeopardise his legal status in the country. “We feel like we have to be quiet and follow the rules and not make much noise.” 

Many students who TRT World approached requested full anonymity due to their serious concerns about publicly speaking out against ICE. Some of them have filed for work authorisation permits, and felt that speaking to the media could result in immediate rejection.   

Several faculty members who have opposed this new regulation said that this is an attempt by the Trump administration to strong-arm universities into opening up their campuses. The lives of students and staff are being put at risk as coronavirus cases continue to rise in the US. So far, nearly 130,000 people have died in America due to the coronavirus.

Source: TRT World