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International Students Face Uncertain Future As Administration Renews Effort to Restrict Visas


International students at American universities are facing the twin challenge of pandemic-induced travel restrictions and an administration in Washington determined to reduce immigration.

No one may better exemplify the difficulty facing international students than Priya, an Indian graduate student studying ecology at the University of Hawaii. We're not using her real name because she is afraid her visa may be jeoparidized if she is identified.

In February, she left Hawaii to visit family in India, expecting to be gone for just a few weeks. Instead she has been stuck in her home country unable to return to the United States.

“Academically, it has been a struggle. I did all my classes in the middle of the night,” Bhatt said over a video call. India is 15 hours ahead of Hawaii.

Her state of limbo resulted from a confluence of factors. Travel restrictions and flight cancellations initially made it impossible for her to reach the U.S. from India when the COVID-19 pandemic reached the Western world in March.

But Bhatt has since been confronted by a separate and more challenging problem: renewing her student visa; that all important document that grants non-residents the right to enter, study, and in some cases work in the United States.

While delayed by the pandemic, Bhatt’s student visa expired. That is normally not an insurmountable problem. The U.S. State Department maintains diplomatic facilities in more than 170 countries around the world, where prospective students can apply for a visa or renew an existing one.

But the State Department suspended visa processing and other regular consular services in March, in an attempt to safeguard overseas personnel from the spreading virus. Bhatt says that move is what ultimately left her unable to return to Hawaii.

“At first there were no flights available and then the visa ban happens,” she explained.  

That problem is not unique to India or just to students seeking to enroll in a U.S. institution, according to Honolulu-based immigration attorney John Egan.

“The Department of State, they suspended routine visa services to everybody,” said Egan, who currently directs the Refugee and Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Hawaii’s Richardson School of Law.

Some consulates and embassies began resuming limited services in July, but the decision to do so is based on local health conditions in individual cities and countries.

Unfortunately for many international students, an even greater impediment to their studies was recently unveiled. Earlier this month, the Trump Administration announced it would seek to revoke the visas of foreign students whose U.S. universities switch to predominantly online instruction.

“Basically what it said was, if your program is all online, you do not qualify to be in the country as a student,” explains Egan.

Before the pandemic, student visa holders were typically permitted to take up to one online class each semester and remain in good standing with the federal government. That rule was relaxed in March, as many colleges and universities switched to remote learning, seeking to physically distance students and faculty because of COVID-19.

In announcing the July change, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for overseeing student visas once the holders are inside the United States, said it was simply seeking to return to pre-pandemic standards.

Colleges and universities said enforcement of the remote learning restrictions would be disastrous for their students and their financial health. Most of the approximately 1 million international students in the United States pay full tuition at their universities. They contribute an estimated $41 billion to domestic economic activity annually.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as more than a dozen states, quickly sued the federal government, seeking to block implementation of the rule.

The administration dropped the proposal before a court decision on the case was issued, to much fanfare among opponents.  But that retreat does not mean that students and universities are in the clear.

According to Jennifer Walsh, provost for Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, the significance of the administration’s pull back has been exaggerated in the national media.

“It didn’t fully resolve the issue,” she noted. “It was reported as a reversal in the press, but that wasn’t exactly true.”

Walsh says the out-of-court agreement between Harvard, MIT, and the federal government landed somewhere in between the original policy and the proposed change.

“It does not allow for students to have a fully online schedule during the semester,” she explained. “So if at some point we have to switch back to online only, then students would still be at risk of deportation.”

Unbound by a court ruling, the situation remains fluid. On Friday, ICE issued clarifying guidance regarding online learning for international students. The agency now says that foreign students enrolled in an all-online program will not be allowed to enter the country. The memo also clarified that the initial remote learning exemptions issued in March only apply to students already enrolled at that time.

It was not immediately clear whether the March guidance permitting hybrid courses of study with expanded, but still partial, remote learning would apply to students who enrolled after March 9th.

The declaration has the potential to cause chaos for Hawaii’s 4,000 international students. According to a spokesperson for the University of Hawaii,  70% of courses this fall will either be online or a blend of in-person and remote instruction.

If a resurgence in COVID-19 forces local institutions to go fully online, the legal status of their international students may be in doubt.

That would certainly have a significant impact for the community, as well as the individual visa holders. Immigration attorney Egan says that international students contribute $120 million dollars annually to Hawaii’s economy.

There undoubtedly already has and will be an emotional toll on the students themselves. Back in India, Priya is still trying to get her visa renewed. She told HPR that the recent developments are demoralizing for people like her, who see themselves as having done everything right to come to the U.S. legally.

“To know that you have gone through all that, with all the paperwork, and you’re just trying to have a good life, it hurts,” she said, half a world away. “We are not stealing anybody’s jobs. We know the struggle and we want everybody to rise up with us.”

The perception may have a lasting impact. HPU Provost Jennifer Walsh says the U.S. is increasingly seen as hostile toward international students, while universities in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are actively courting them.

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