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Uncertainty, anxiety, fear among Indian students at ICE announcement

International students wait for specific guidelines from their colleges on the ruling that says they cannot remain in the US if their institution is going to be fully online in the fall semester

Students and pedestrians at Harvard University.
Students and pedestrians at Harvard University. (Reuters)

"It's hard to explain to those immune from this government's policies how much effort international students have to make to plan and replan our lives. What it takes to live with the ground shaking beneath your feet every 2 months. What it takes to be held to the same standards of excellence, while constantly planning for other lives. To have to think of cancelling leases, finding storage, moving houses, transferring money, finding jobs, renewing visas again and again, while conducting top notch research," wrote Ankit Bharadwaj (@ankitbhardy), a climate change researcher and PhD student at NYU Sociology, on Twitter on 7 July.

On 6 July, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a body which runs the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), made an unexpected announcement regarding international students pursuing higher education at US universities, saying students must attend in-person classes in order to retain their F1 or M1 student visas. The ICE also said that students belonging to universities that had already announced that they would go completely online for the fall semester starting in September 2020, would have to “depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction, to remain in lawful status," said the ICE.

This leaves students in both graduate and post-graduate courses at US universities in a state of anxiety and uncertainty. While around 8% of US universities, among them Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Rutgers, Georgetown, and the University of Southern California, have already announced that they will be largely moving coursework online in the coming semester, making international students at these institutions vulnerable to this new ruling, many more are in the process of announcing plans for the fall semester⁠—plans that could potentially impact the over 2 lakh Indian students in the US.

Sumitra Badrinathan, a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, says she doesn’t know yet how the ruling will affect her. “I’m a PhD student and don’t have classes right now. It’s unclear what the effect of this announcement will be on students who are writing their dissertations but still live in the US. We’re waiting for clarification from the university," says Badrinathan. “It’s difficult news to digest for a lot of people. The pandemic already uprooted plans (a lot of our research involves travel) and this announcement complicates it further." Her university has announced a hybrid model (with a mix of online and in-person classes) but Badrinathan says it’s unclear how this affects people who didn’t have classes to begin with.

There is an atmosphere of fear as well. A PhD student from Michigan State University Mint reached out to wanted the conversation to be off the record. “We don’t know how retaliation works. A group of teaching assistants went on a strike at the University of California earlier this year (in February). They had wanted higher wages. The university terminated their contracts and they faced deportation," she said.

She has been in Michigan on a student visa since 2015 and was to graduate in May but sought an indefinite extension because of the pandemic. “The whole of summer, the coursework was online. A few weeks ago, the university decided to switch to a hybrid model because the caseload in Michigan was steadily dropping. But in late June, as the caseload was dropping, the administration allowed local pubs to open. Now there are 158 cases in the city linked to one pub. The grapevine is, looking at the local clusters and the undergrads responsible for it, the university might be going online again. This would mean deportation for us," says the student.

Several Indian students enrolled in undergraduate courses in US universities that Mint reached out to declined to speak on this issue. “We are awaiting some specific inputs from the universities as so far everything is from the media only. And sometimes the specific details vary," said a parent of one such student from Bengaluru who did not want to be named.

Another student (currently in the US) we reached out to said he did not want to comment on the issue as he was not sure about “the possible repercussions of communicating from a position of vulnerability… I’m not sure what channels of communication are being monitored."

Some students, however, spoke out against the decision on Twitter.

"This decision completely upends decades-old realities. Tens of thousands of students will just have to up and leave. The financial hit will be the first big blow. The lack of coherence or stability about immigration norms will deter millions of future international students, Indian or otherwise, from ever even considering the USA for higher education. Trump and ICE are systematically taking a hatchet to the American university system, cruelly cashing in on covid to push their conservative agenda," says Gaurav Sabnis, Associate Professor of Marketing at Stevens Institute of Technology’s School of Business located in Hoboken, New Jersey. At the moment, his university, a mid sized non-profit private university, plans to pursue a hybrid model in the fall semester.

The ruling is not only unprecedented, which is attributable to the global health crisis caused by the ongoing pandemic, but feels punitive in tone and intent. “Even after 9/11 with national security concerns and emotions running high, such steps were never taken. Because such steps have no real practical upside. No other administration before this, Republican or Democrat, has been this explicitly anti-immigration," says Sabnis.

Chicago resident Akanksha (she requested we only print her first name) graduated from Northwestern University in December 2019, and as per her visa rules, can work in the US until January 2021. "I was planning to enroll myself into another course before that. But considering everything happening right now, there’s no real way of deciding if it is a viable option," says Akanksha. “ICE rules mean you need to be physically present in classes. But if you do that, you’re putting your health at risk. I understand it’s political rhetoric, done to appeal to a certain kind of voter. But any international student coming to the country is bringing in top dollar and funding state universities. We’re fueling the economy."

“Going to India isn’t an option for me. My parents live in a very remote part of the country. We don’t have a car, the nearest hospital is almost 15km away. If I get the disease while travelling, we would have no access to treatment. My husband lives in Europe but many European countries aren’t allowing people from the US to enter. Basically, I’m stuck. I might have to leave the US but I’ll have nowhere to go," says the student from Michigan State University.

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