The Dallas Morning News
Foreign students fear deportation
Those on visas might be forced to leave if schools offer online courses only
Jadha Gunawan doesn’t have any control over how his classes at Texas A&M University will be offered in the fall. Like most schools, it’s offering a mix of inperson and virtual courses to help stop the spread of COVID19.
But because the two courses he’s set to take for his mechanical engineering master’s program are being offered online, he may not get to remain in the U.S.
A rule issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials Monday requires that those in the U.S. on a student visa must attend at least some of their classes in person. An allvirtual schedule could force the 24yearold from Indonesia to leave the country.
And if classes start in person but are suddenly moved online if a college closes because of the coronavirus pandemic — which is what
happened in March — international students could also then be forced to leave.
That has students like Gunawan and university officials across the nation scrambling to adjust schedules, reconfigure offerings and lay out various backup plans to be able to pivot during unpredictable times.
“We need to make not only plan A, but plan B through Z,” Gunawan said. “This is a slap in the face for us. We already spend so much money just to go to school here. We’re already having to pay two to three times the normal tuition just to do this, and now that things are inconvenient, they’re just going to send all of us home.”
Already some schools are fighting back against the federal policy.
On Thursday, Harvard University, Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security to prevent them from enforcing the new guidance. The agencies aren’t able to answer basic questions about how the policy will work, leaving students with many questions, according to a news release from MIT.
“Unspoken, but unmistakable, is one more question: ‘Am I welcome?’ ” said the release. “At MIT, the answer, unequivocally, is yes.”
Those on student visas traditionally can’t take all their courses online. But many schools are significantly limiting inperson classes because of the sharp rise in COVID19 cases, including in Texas.
ICE’S new guidance — which also requires foreign students to transfer to another school if all their courses are offered online only — threw a wrench into months of planning just as colleges and universities began finalizing operating plans for the fall semester.
Texas school officials say they are working to ensure international students are able to stay.
In a letter sent to students, Texas A&M’S International Student Services said it would work with them to ensure they’re taking at least one course in person this fall in order to avoid deportation. The university also voiced uncertainty about the situation.
“While we do not have all the answers yet, we strongly support international students to attend the university this fall,” the letter reads.
Officials within the University of Texas System say they too are awaiting further guidance on what is expected of them under the rules.
‘Pack and go home’
The University of Texas at Dallas will be among the hardest hit by the new rule. It ranks No. 12 nationally in having among the most international students enrolled with about 5,500 students from around the world — mostly for graduate programs. Another 3,300 have completed degrees but are doing internships related to their studies.
Qiongdan Huang is finishing up research in circuit design as a thirdyear electrical engineering doctoral student at Utdallas. That’s all done in person, but she worries about what will happen if she can no longer come to campus if it’s shut down again.
Could she even get home to China? In March, many international students struggled to get home because of travel bans. Now airlines have limited options, which has driven up the price of tickets, she said.
“It would be really, really hard,” she said. And how would she finish her degree? “Can I still finish my program or not? International students have already put a lot of effort in their programs. I feel like the emphasis isn’t on that but we’re being told, ‘OK, you don’t have to do that. Just pack and go home.’ ”
Juan Gonzalez, Utdallas’ dean of graduate education who also oversees the International Student Services Office, said university officials are working fast to ensure that each international student will have facetoface interaction — even if that means in limited, socially distant ways — so they can remain in Texas.
“We’ve gotten a lot of calls already from students on what this means,” he said. “We’re doing our best to reassure them and advise them . ... Our main mission is to make sure students are continuing so they can finish their education and be safe.”
Under the new guidance, if schools offer a hybrid of inperson and online courses — which many universities in Texas intend to do — the institution must certify to federal officials that the program is not entirely online and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to progress normally on a degree plan.
If a school is only offering virtual classes, an international student must either leave the country or transfer to a different school that does offer inperson courses.
If a school is operating under normal, inperson conditions, international students here on the F1 visas can only enroll in one online course. Those students here for English language training programs or vocational degrees, generally on an M1 visa, won’t be allowed to enroll in any online courses.
Universities were already bracing for a drop in international enrollment because embassies and consulates around the world shut down because of COVID19, making it difficult to issue new student visas. Now the new guidance could give even more pause to those who were planning to start school in the U.S.
That could cost universities millions of dollars. International students pay full tuition rates to attend.
‘A lot of uncertainty’
The University of North Texas, for example, was poised to bring in one of the largest classes of international students after about 2,000 sought admissions. But since the COVID19 outbreak, UNT now expects about 2025% fewer international students this school year.
Lauren Jacobsenbridges, UNT’S director of international student and scholar services, said officials there are also working fast to ensure students’ courses will meet the federal requirements. But she added that the university is also working to help foreign students who can’t make it to Denton.
“We know there’s just a lot of uncertainty right now,” she said. “So we’re working with different departments to expand our online opportunities so that if our students have to begin their classes while still abroad, they can do so and then join us the next year.”
“We’ve gotten a lot of calls already from students on what this means. We’re doing our best to reassure them and advise them . ... Our main mission is to make sure students are continuing so they can finish their education and be safe.” Juan Gonzalez,
Utdallas’ dean of graduate education