Concerns and frustrations: International students react to ICE’s newest regulation

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s announcement declaring that international students cannot remain in the U.S. if they take only online courses stirs concerns for USF’s community of international students. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE / WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

Concerns and frustrations arose among international students after receiving news that they would not be able to stay in the U.S. if taking a full schedule of online classes in the fall semester.

The announcement, issued by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Monday afternoon, took many by surprise and left others uncertain as to how they would continue their education in the U.S. while maintaining legal status. 

Among the concerns, some students felt the decision was unfair as it leaves them without the option to take online-only courses if they choose to stay in the country and could put their health and safety at risk by taking face-to-face classes.

“It’s not fair that we have to choose between being healthy or being educated. As an engineering student, the majority of my classes are given in lecture halls bigger than 100 people, so they won’t happen in person,” Ecuadorian sophomore Isaac Diaz Becdach said

“However, even if one of my classes has an in-person option, I wouldn’t feel comfortable going to class due to my previous medical history. I am going to be a [resident assistant] during the fall, so if I don’t take any in-person classes, then I would have to quit a job I’ve worked so hard for as I fear deportation. As I said before, we are not criminals. Dreams shouldn’t be deported.” 

During a live Q&A on Wednesday evening, Director of International Services Marcia Taylor described ICE’s decision as “unfair and conflicting” and reinforced the office’s support to international students during these “unprecedented times.”

“These are such difficult and unprecedented times on top of dealing with the many ways that COVID-19 has changed our daily routines,” Taylor said. 

“I’m here to reassure you that our office, and the entire university leadership, is committed to your academic success, we value the contributions that our international students make to our community. And we are committed to doing everything possible to ensure you can complete your fall semester as planned.”

With more than 400 questions submitted, Taylor addressed subjects ranging from the students’ status to class schedules for the fall semester.

After seeing multiple universities across the country addressing ICE’s latest decision, including Harvard, MIT and Northwestern filing a lawsuit against ICE, students filled the Q&A with questions on when the university would issue a statement regarding their plans to “safeguard its international population.”

“I would expect a statement shortly,” Taylor said.

Others are still worried about having to leave the country due to the changing conditions of COVID-19. 

“My biggest concern on this update is that if USF does decide to do online classes, I cannot fly to Spain,” civil engineering sophomore Ines Rodriguez said. “Right now, my country does not allow anyone that comes from the U.S., which would mean that I would have to talk with the embassy and see what I can do.”

Although the university’s plan includes the possibility of a mid-semester change depending on the conditions surrounding COVID-19, Taylor said she doesn’t anticipate USF changing to online-only delivery.

“I do not anticipate there being an issue,” Taylor said. “I know that guidelines talk about mid-semester change. We are discussing what we would do in that instance and are trying to ensure that there would be no danger for our international students.”

Travel restrictions also affect those students who were planning to go back to Tampa in the fall, and who now feel forced to do so because of the announced guidelines.

“Right now I’m not sure I’m going to be able to return to the U.S. because of the travel bans, I would have to quarantine in another country for 14 days which can be complicated,” Brazilian civil engineering major Vitoria Rosas said. “I don’t know if I would be able to maintain my visa status if I stay here in Brazil, and what would this mean for my scholarship because one of the requirements is that I maintain my status as a full-time student.” 

During the Q&A, Taylor clarified that scholarships would be maintained as long as students remain enrolled full time, which is also a possibility even if students are only taking online classes.

Financial concerns were also brought up. Juan Melo, a sophomore majoring in computer engineering from Colombia, said he is concerned about signed off-campus leases and the expenses that would go to waste to maintain or cancel it if his apartment goes unused.

“My biggest concern is my home,” Melo said. “Right now, I am entirely living in the U.S. I would need to find a place for all my belongings as well as a sublease or a way to cancel my lease contract.”

If returning to their home country is the only option, other students were worried about the difficulties they might face as a result of unreliable internet connections, not having the necessary resources for their classes or the time difference between the countries. 

“Even working online is tougher because you don’t get the same quality of education as you would in person, and I am fine with having to go the extra mile to work remotely, but with the complication of not having reliable internet or not having reliable electricity, or just having to deal with many more problems that exist in Venezuela but not here, like getting food… I would have to take on many more responsibilities that in the U.S. are just really simple,” computer science junior Jose Ramirez Fuentes said.

International students are also thinking about the effects that losing their visa status would mean to their educational careers and to future internship or job opportunities.

Maria del Carmen Soto, a sophomore majoring in business analytics and information systems from Brazil, said she was facing emotional challenges while worrying about completing her education as a result of ICE’s decision.

“I can only hope that this doesn’t affect my educational career, but it’s hard to stay focused during a pandemic, and that is amplified when you know you are not welcome in the country your university is located,” Soto said. “But besides these emotional challenges, the possibility of not being allowed to complete my bachelor’s degree is certainly what would affect me and my family in the most significant and practical way.” 

Similarly, students know that one of the requirements for having optional practical training (OPT) is having an F-1 status during a full academic year, which might be jeopardized by the new guidelines. 

“My biggest preoccupations are having to go back to my country in the middle of the semester and to have my future OPT application harmed by taking only online classes and canceling my current I-20,” electrical engineering major Thales Almagro said. 

Taylor said the office does not have a clear answer pertaining OPT because ICE’s announcement was conflicting regarding the active status of international students. However, she said the guidance does not refer to Curricular Practical Training, the program that allows international students to gain practical experience through employment, internships or co-ops.   

“There is conflicting guidance as to the active nature of the [Student and Exchange Visitor Information System] record so that would be the only issue,” Taylor said. “It does appear that [The Student and Exchange Visitor Program] is recanting that we would need to touch active status. However, I will point out that according to [the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services], you must be in the United States in order to apply for OPT.”

As a result of all of the concerns, international students started petitions to get support in regard to the guidelines. USF biomedical sciences senior Noor Riad Alkantar created a petition Monday requesting ICE to rescind its decision on the exemptions for people with F-1 and M-1 visas. The petition had over 90,000 signatures as of July 9.

“Being close friends with many international students at USF, I am aware of the struggles that they go through. … Many of my friends are struggling with money, classes and their homelands are booming with [coronavirus] and economic issues,” Alkantar said

“Even if this petition doesn’t cause ICE to rescind their decision, I think this petition and others like it will pressure universities to accommodate international students. It’s also bringing awareness to the issue and informing people of the recent change and how they can help.” 

As a way to demand action, the SG Senate is working on a resolution to condemn ICE’s decision and ensure that international students maintain their legal status in the fall semester. 

The proposed resolution has over 20 sponsors including the Black Student Union at USF, the Asian Students in America Executive Board, the Central American Student Alliance secretary and many others. 

Hector Erazo, a senator from El Salvador, said the goal is to send it to the Department of Homeland Security leadership as well as the three branches of the U.S government and other colleges and universities across the country. 

“I’m actually an international student too, so I can relate to the fear of being deported out of nowhere, for something completely outside of your control,” Erazo said. “Being an international student already is like you’re permanently swimming against the current, and it’s just wrong to subject them to such measures.

“Some students for example would find themselves in a limbo where the country they’re studying in wants them out and the country where they’re from isn’t letting anyone in. It’s not exactly fair to treat foreign talent like that in a time where you could use those $45 billion that international students generate for the U.S. economy.”

As a result of the current immigration conditions, Rosas said international students were left with limited options and with an uncertain future.

“It seems kinda crazy to me to be honest,” Rosas said. “They limited the options for international students in a way that I really wasn’t expecting, considering that we are in the middle of a pandemic. There are just so many unanswered questions because people find themselves in so many different situations right now that it’s just hard to figure out what could really happen to each one of us.”