Before July, the only stress-inducing item on Oishika Chaudhury’s agenda was figuring out how to impress her supervisor at her new job. Despite the nine-and-a-half hour time difference between her residence in Kolkata, India and New York, the rising CAS junior had become accustomed to the challenges the pandemic had imposed upon her. While the change in environment had initially been a constant source of frustration, she was now grateful to maintain her employment despite not being in the US. Her last 90 days — like those of many international students — had been characterized by uncertainty and anxiety. Finally, a sense of calm had set in. That was until she looked at her phone on the night of July 6.
What awaited her was a bombardment of text messages from friends, family and acquaintances informing her about the new Student and Exchange Visitor Programs (SEVP) policy that was set to derail her academic plans for the fall semester, but would ultimately be rescinded just over a week later. Hundreds of thousands of international students like herself, would now be on course for eight days of confusion, devastation and constant distress.
There are close to 1.1 million international students in the United States who contribute close to $45 billion to the US economy. NYU has the highest enrollment of international students of any academic institution in the country, standing at over 19,000. With the international student population of the class of 2022 alone at 28%, NYU found itself in a uniquely precarious position. A vast majority of these 19,000 international students were forced to fly back to their home countries upon New York’s emergence as a hotspot for the coronavirus in March. Despite a mostly flattened curve, many had decided not to return to the US for the fall semester. Under the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s March 9 guidelines, this was an acceptable course of action for many international students.
According to the new policy directive, and the subsequent FAQs issued on the following day by ICE, the leniency and flexibility afforded to institutions in prior guidelines was being significantly rolled back. Academic institutions were given three sets of guidelines to follow depending on their chosen mode of instruction. The most daunting of which, was the threat of immediate deportation for international students taking an entirely remote course-load for the coming semester.
“I feel more dazed and confused than ever,” Chaudhury, who had originally intended to take all her courses remotely from a family friend’s place in Boston, told WSN.
The panic was worse for students currently situated in the US. For Ginger Ooi, a rising CAS senior from Malaysia currently taking summer courses in New York City, this meant that if a resurgence of the coronavirus forced NYU to revert back to a pure form of virtual learning mid-semester, she would have to transfer to another university offering in-person classes or face deportation.
“I chose to stay here to make sure my family can be safe too and now you’re telling me that all this might have been in vain?” Ooi said. “I came here to seek a better education, but it really hurts that this is what we get in return as international students.”
As one of the individuals that would have directly been affected by this policy, had she not been enrolled in in-person lab classes as a Chemistry major, her comments echo the fears of those international students returning to the US for the fall semester.
For international students that found themselves currently outside the United States, travel restrictions, sparse communications with NYU, and the closure of US consulates worldwide intensified their individual concerns about the fall semester and added greater nuances to the decisions they would have to make in regards to returning.
Some, like Carol Zeitune, a rising Tisch senior, had to return to campus but the policy directive had suddenly placed her in a uniquely complex position. As a Brazilian that’s currently residing in Thailand, deportation would have implied that she might have to make her way to her country of citizenship instead of being allowed into her country of residence.
“I left Brazil when I was eight,” Zeitune said. “Being forced back there for reasons out of my control [doesn’t] make any sense to me.”
To Zeitune and hundreds of thousands like her, any form of pre-planning had now simply become an exercise in futility.
In a statement to WSN, university spokesperson John Beckman voiced the NYU administration’s deep disdain for the new directive.
“The rules — which are arbitrary, callous, and lack any educational rationale or merit — could potentially have a devastating impact on our international students,” Beckman said.
While students taking purely online semesters had been dealt with the worst hand, those enrolled in universities that had adopted in-person or hybrid modes of operation were left perplexed. The lack of clarifications on the directive for students enrolled in hybrid models resulted in numerous NYU students sending panic-stricken emails to the NYU Office of Global Services.
Last week’s policy directive noted that in order for international students at NYU to continue to maintain their F-1 visa record, they would have to enroll in at least one in-person or blended class. While this would have been manageable for students located in NYU study away locations and within countries where local universities had resumed in-person operations, for a vast majority of international students, this policy would not have been feasible. To make matters worse, if a student was unable to maintain their F-1 visa record they would no longer be able to obtain the certification they required to partake in internships or apply for jobs in the summer of 2021.
“Not all of us want to go back,” Sania Irfan, a rising Steinhardt senior from Pakistan, said.
The March 9 guidelines had facilitated her in continuing her course of study remotely from her home country without lasting implications on her ability to gain employment in the United States. Last week’s directive, for a brief moment, completely threw everything into question for her.
“I thought universities would guarantee quality education and opportunities for students willing to stay at home,” Irfan said. “Now, they seem to care only for anyone in the US or wishing to come there.”
The lack of administrative reassurance that was provided to students in Irfan’s position was why she and many other international students were left dissatisfied with the OGS.
For those that hadn’t opted for on-campus housing, the race was now on for procuring an apartment in time for the start of the semester. On the other hand, owing to limited international air travel, those who had signed leases in New York found themselves potentially stranded in their home countries. Even worse: the threat of deportation would still linger on if NYU switched to a purely virtual format midway through the semester.
Nearing the end of the debacle, some, like Ranti Adeniyi, a rising CAS senior from the United Kingdom, were left with even more questions than before. As a Go Local student, Adeniyi initially believed that her F-1 visa record would be protected under the new guidelines, but the conflicting information received via communications with NYU had created a state of constant bewilderment for her.
“I understand that this is not all NYU’s fault and they are being forced to adapt but I don’t feel supported as an international student,” Adeniyi said. “I don’t feel heard. There is contradicting information online [written by NYU] about what I can and should do. For example, I thought as a Go Local student my visa would be protected but now I’m reading that this may or might not be true. And now I feel tricked into accepting an option that might not even be viable. I’m now also no longer eligible for NYU housing this fall.”
After eight days of student activism, global outcry, the circulation of harrowing testimonials and a lawsuit brought forth by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology backed by an amicus brief submitted by NYU, on July 14, ICE reversed its policy. The new proclamation was declared void and the guidelines issued in March were to be followed once again.
“Being an international student in the US, I really thought was a privilege, something I could be proud of in my motherland,” an anonymous testimonial from the @dearintlstudents Instagram page wrote. “I don’t think of it as a privilege anymore. Because my friends in the UK, Germany, Canada, France, even here in India, didn’t have to go through what I have to go through.”
The lawsuit, which garnered support from over 200 institutions including Cornell, Brown and Williams, had succeeded in forcing the government to revoke the policy directive of July 6, 2020. However, this has not been without consequence. The lasting implications of the eight days are still yet to be seen, with students still apprehensive of returning after all that has transpired.
For international students this turmoil isn’t over yet.
International students who are opting to stay abroad are doing so for a number of reasons. Some are from countries with a successfully flattened coronavirus curve and consider it hazardous to travel under these circumstances. Others, like Irfan, were financial aid students that had been cast aside by the university. Many thus perceive studying from one’s home country to be an opportunity to save a substantial amount of money on housing and meals.
A senior official at the Department of Homeland Security is reported to have said that the administration still intends to issue regulations regarding foreign students within the coming weeks. The March 9 guidelines, while being comparatively lenient to the ones issued on July 6, do not afford the same degree of flexibility for incoming first-year students. This incoming batch may face a similar threat of deportation and remote course load restrictions with further consequences for their F-1 visa records. According to Wall Street Journal senior reporter Michelle Hackman, this could be a genuine possibility.
Beyond potential future regulations, international first years are more vulnerable to face a higher degree of predicaments throughout the pandemic. Consulates throughout the globe have been closed indefinitely in many countries, resulting in thousands of students having visa appointments scheduled for dates set almost halfway through the fall semester. While returning students are faced with difficult choices and onerous decisions, first years are being forced into opting for a completely virtual semester or potentially, a year of remote learning.
While the confusion may have subsided and the litigation may have borne fruit, a precedent has been set. A xenophobic attempt to bar international students who contribute significantly to the economy has sown seeds of mistrust and incessant wariness amongst both current and future students.
Despite Ranti Adeniyi being pleased with the rescinding of this policy, to her, “the sentiment as an international student of feeling unwanted still remains.”
Social media advocacy and civil litigation may have borne fruit for the privileged few, but the battle still wages on for the undocumented. Confusion over NYU’s status as a sanctuary campus has led undocumented students to remain in a constant state of peril over the course of their four years of university education. Many have pointed out the hypocrisy in university administrations’ attitudes toward undocumented students, who have been severely neglected, when compared with the varying degrees of assistance provided to international students. Thus leaving many wondering whether the nation-wide outrage would have maintained its level of intensity had international students not been accompanied by a $45 billion paycheck.
Student activists have taken this ordeal as an opportunity to critique ICE’s history of abusing undocumented immigrants and non-US students that have traditionally been sidelined from the mainstream discourse. Calls to abolish the law enforcement organisation as a whole have intensified over the course of the last few weeks. In unifying under the hashtag #AbolishICE, hundreds of thousands are hopeful that this recent win in civil litigation for non-US citizens will crossover into legislation for all non-US citizens, even the vulnerable few still located in the country. The reversal of ICE’s policy is a testament to student activism and many believe it could serve as the stepping stone toward amplifying the voices of those who remain overlooked.
Email Moosa Muzaffar Waraich at [email protected]