Melina Galvez, a BYU international student from Guatemala, has spent the past week worrying about her future. “The life that I have in the United States could be over in a couple weeks.”
It’s a reality she and 1.3 million international students in the U.S. are facing after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced international students will be forced to leave the U.S. or transfer to another college if their universities go remote during Fall Semester.
ICE usually bars international students from taking more than a single online course, but it waived that rule in March as campuses across the country closed due to the pandemic.
ICE revoked the change on July 6, announcing that students must take some courses in-person or risk legal consequences like deportation. Students not currently in the U.S. will not be allowed in the country if their universities have announced plans to go entirely online. ICE says students could transfer schools as an alternative; however, options may be limited since many schools’ transfer deadlines have already passed.
Harvard and M.I.T. sued the Trump administration in federal court on July 8 over ICE’s rules. Their suit seeks a temporary restraining order that would prevent the government from enforcing the rules. In the meantime, universities must decide by July 15 whether they will be entirely online this fall, according to Inside Higher Education.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly stressed that schools must reopen in the fall, and ICE’s directives have put increased pressure on universities to fall in line.
ICE also stipulated that students must leave the country if their universities start the semester in-person but later have to transition to remote classes. It’s unclear whether that would mean BYU’s nearly 1,300 international students would have to leave the country when the school transitions to remote classes after Thanksgiving.
“This week has turned our world upside-down,” BYU International Services Director Sam Brown said in an email to The Daily Universe, stating he did not have time to answer questions about how ICE rulings would affect BYU’s international students. “We’re still figuring many things out.”
Finding solutions for students
International Services sent an email on July 7 informing international students it is meeting with the university, government and legal representatives to determine a course of action. “We ask for your patience; we know that is hard given how impactful this could be to you,” the letter reads.
For Galvez, the letter and an Instagram post from BYU were comforting after reading xenophobic comments online targeting international students after ICE’s announcement that she said brought her to tears.
“I felt very supported,” she said. “I felt like OK, people want to kick us out, but I do feel wanted.” She is scared, however, that the university won’t be able to do anything to help international students. “It’s so hard to fight such a big institution as ICE from a university standpoint; they’re just very, very powerful.”
She said one of the things that has given her hope is the support she’s seen from domestic students. “They’re actually being our voices because we literally do not have one in this country.”
Students like Taylor Munlin have taken to social media to spread awareness of the issues international students are dealing with and to come up with possible solutions.
“When I started realizing that was my friends at BYU — people I sat in class with, people who are really involved in campus things with me,” Munlin said, “it really upset me.”
She and other students have raised awareness about the difficulty some international students are facing, especially underclassmen who have later registration dates to add in-person classes. The most tangible product of their efforts is a Google Doc listing nearly 40 in-person and blended classes that international students may be able to take as well as contact information for professors who have said they will work with international students on in-person options.
Amanda Galán Vintimilla, a Latin American studies junior from Ecuador, struggled to get into the in-person classes she needed at first. Although many of the professors she reached out to about classes were unaware of international students’ current situation, she said most of them were understanding and were able to add her to their classes.
Although international students at universities offering hybrid classes can take more than three online credit hours as long as they can certify all of their courses aren’t online, Galán said she has chosen in-person options wherever possible “just in case.”
International Services released more guidance to international students Friday afternoon, stating internationals will only need to have one in-person class, either a “classroom” or blended” option, to maintain their visa status. IS said the amount of time students are required to meet face to face isn’t stipulated in ICE’s guidance, so faculty members will be allowed to make their own determinations for individual classes.
IS recommended international students who are immunocompromised still take one in-person class but reach out to their professor to “discuss ways to keep you safe and protected.”
The emotional, physical, financial toll
Ernesto Valencia, a freshman from El Salvador, has added in-person classes to his registration request, but he won’t know for sure if he’s in the classes until his registration date in the third week of July.
His main concern, though, is the travel logistics he would have to figure out if he has to return to El Salvador after Thanksgiving. El Salvador closed down the only international airport in the country until August 6, and Valencia said he’s heard it will shut again if COVID-19 cases continue to increase.
“I will have to buy a ticket to another country and pay for a hotel to stay at and so that’s a lot of money that I don’t have,” he said.
Deferring a semester will also bring additional costs since he’d need to repay a $350 SEVIS fee — required of international students by ICE in addition to other visa fees — because he will have been outside the U.S. for more than five months. This would be in addition to further paperwork and possible re-application for an I-20, a multi-use document that allows international students to enter the U.S.
“Since the ICE regulation was published, I have been feeling really overwhelmed and stressed,” Valencia said. “There are so many factors I have to take into account.”
Time zone differences are among the challenges facing international students. Margaux Lechner-Plazy, a finance student from Germany, is scheduled to take mostly live remote delivery classes, which means she’d need to be on Zoom at the same time as her U.S. classmates.
“With 17 credits, an internship and an eight hour time difference, I will be taking most of my classes in the middle of the night,” she said.
German linguistics major Ethan Kitsell dealt with the difficulties of taking live classes with a seven-hour time difference after he returned to the U.K. in March when BYU classes went online and during Spring Term.
“The time when my family members get done with their workdays is exactly when I have to then switch on, so that then impedes my ability to be sociable and to spend time with family to visit friends when I can,” he said.
Lechner-Plazy is also concerned about whether ICE’s rules will impact her ability to graduate in April and receive an Optional Practice Training, a federal temporary employment authorization, which allows international students to stay in the U.S. an extra year after graduation to work.
“ICE’s announcement was very disheartening because international students come to the U.S. because they want to be there. It never feels good to hear that the country you chose and worked so hard to legally immigrate to doesn’t want you here,” she said.
Elena Deighton is an advertising junior from London. ICE’s position has “made me lose faith in America a little bit. International students are not pawns for you to use. We’re hard-working people that deserve the same respect citizens are offered,” she said. “It’s exhausting to be so emotionally invested in a country that treats you like you’re expendable.”
She is also afraid the rules may push back graduation since most of the classes she needs for her major are remote. Adding a semester would mean she’d need to extend her visa, but she expressed concern ICE could deny a visa extension request and render her unable to complete her degree.
Christian Metzner is a former representative for International Student Services in the Student Advisory Council. He said one of the biggest issues for international students is a lack of resources if they’re required to leave the country, including stable internet connections, access to virtual or in-person study groups, TA sessions and library resources.
Chemical engineering sophomore Sara Ahmad would only have electricity available for three hours a day if she has to return to Syria. “I wouldn’t even be able to attend the Zoom lectures let alone do my homework and the online exams.”
Metzner also described the “immense financial strain” the rule could cause for international students who will have to buy international flights, pay to store their belongings in the U.S. and deal with a housing contract they’re not using as well as finding housing in their home country.
If students have an on-campus job, they’ll also be left without a source of income if their supervisor is unable to approve remote work, something Kitsell said would be an “even bigger kick in the teeth.”
All of these factors would be a heavy burden under normal circumstances, but international students are dealing with them on top of the stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Metzner, for one, plans on staying in Germany for the Fall Semester. “It feels much safer here,” he said.
Kitsell is weighing whether he will also stay home in the U.K., where he said he wouldn’t have to worry about health concerns as much due to his government’s universal healthcare system. He said flying back to the U.S. only to have to pick up and move three months later also doesn’t make too much sense.
But like many international students, he’s trying to be patient until BYU can release more concrete details.
“I don’t see the point in stressing too much if there’s nothing I can do to control it,” Kitsell said. “The best thing I can do right now for me is to just keep doing what I’m doing and
plan as if I can go back in September and hope for the best.”