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Heel Talk episode 14: How international students are handling new ICE visa restrictions

Graphic of Heel Talk podcast

The 14th episode of Heel Talk went live Monday morning. 

On July 6, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced changes to temporary exemptions for students on F-1 and M-1 visas taking online classes in the fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the exemptions, students who are taking an entirely remote course load are not allowed to remain in the country, and if they do not leave or take measures like transferring to another school with in-person classes, they face potential deportation. 

Host Evely Forte spoke to international UNC students to get a better sense of how they are feeling about this federal policy change and what their expectations in response to this policy are for the fall semester. 

Maydha Devarajan contributed reporting. This episode was co-edited and co-produced by Evely Forte and Meredith Radford. 

For more information on today’s episode, click here.

The transcript of Monday’s episode is available below: 

Evely Forte: I’m Evely Forte from The Daily Tar Heel and this is Heel Talk. 

Hey everyone, welcome back to Heel Talk.   

Many international students at UNC are speaking out after the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement implemented a new policy last Monday. These regulations include banning students who have F-1 visas from taking remote courses in the United States if their schools are operating entirely online. These students would not be allowed to enter the United States to take courses remotely here. Instead, they would be expected to stay in their home country or transfer to a school with in-person instruction. 

For hybrid schools like UNC, where a mixture of online and in-person classes will take place, the ICE website states that foreign students can take online class as long as their school certifies that the “program is not completely online, that the student’s course load is not entirely online and that student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program.”

DTH reporter Maydha Devarajan spoke to international students following the new federal guidelines. I reached out to some of them again and other international students to understand how they are feeling about this federal policy change and what their expectations of the University are. 

First, I had the chance to speak with Caroline Coelho and Francesca Del Posso — both rising juniors at UNC on an F-1 visa from Brazil. Caroline is the president of UNC’s Brazilian Student Association, or BRASA, and Francesca is the group’s marketing director. 

Francesca Del Posso: Hi, I’m Francesca. I’m so happy to be here. Thank you for having us. 

Caroline Coelho: Yeah, hi, I’m Caroline. Thank you so much for having us; it’s a pleasure. 

EF: For Caroline and Francesca, the latest ICE guidelines took them both by surprise. 

FDP: We have a group called the Latin American Student Organization, I think it’s called. And, like, they always send stuff that’s, like, about international students. And, especially now, they’ve been sending a lot of, like, links and updates. And so, someone sent that, like, the moment it was released, and I was like “oh, I think this is, like, serious.” So, yeah. I, like, sat down and like tried to decode the whole thing because it’s not as easy to read as it might seem. 

CC: Yeah, same for me. I started receiving the links to the ICE new policies from my family, from my friends, from a lot of different groups. So same, like Francesca said, for me, having to figure out what they were actually saying, having the time to read everything, I was, like, all over the place. I guess I was trying to figure out how those new policies applied to me specifically. I have thought about a plan for the fall semester for some time now. I had been talking to my friends from Brazil, other international students. So, I was trying to see if those new policies would affect me and my plan, which up until then was to take a gap semester. So, for me particularly, when I read the new policies, I wasn’t necessarily desperate. But, when I read it again, I started thinking about my other friends who were maybe thinking about going back to the United States, or in the U.S. in the first place. So, for me it was more, not only about thinking how those new policies would affect me, but also trying to figure out how my friends would be impacted by them.

EF: Though both rising juniors are best friends and pursuing coursework in advertising and public relations and interdisciplinary studies, their plans for this upcoming semester are very different. 

FDP: As I said before, I was pretty indecisive about what I was going to do. I wanted more information to be released before I decided anything. And now, I’ve decided that I’m going to go back to the U.S., if everything works out. I have plane tickets to Mexico, where I’m going to be quarantining for two weeks. And then, after the two weeks have passed, I’ll go into the U.S. with my F-1 student visa. And, hopefully UNC won’t transition to only virtual classes. And, if they, for some reason, have to do that during the semester, then I would have ten days to come back to Brazil. I’m still trying to figure out if I’m going to take a gap semester or if I’m going to take online classes. 

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CC: So, ironically I made the exact opposite decision. I decided to stay in Brazil. I’m still trying to figure out if I’m going to take a gap semester or if I’m going to take online classes. As of right now, it’s up to my OPT (Optional Practical Training) CPT (Curricular Practical Training) situation. For those of you who don’t know, basically it’s like the visa that allows us to have an internship in the U.S. If the gap semester allows me to maintain my OPT-CPT, that’s going to be my first choice. But if it doesn’t, then I’m going to take online classes. And, if it’s the same, if I’m going to lose my OPT-CPT, regardless of my decision, then I’m probably going to take the gap semester — which is interesting because, as you can see, we’re super close friends and we made opposite decisions. So, I guess, right now I would say, on behalf of like, other international students, it comes down to your priorities. So, for Francesca, it’s trying to maintain her visa, and for me it’s more about not risking not getting in the U.S. or getting there and having to come back if they transition to online classes.

EF: And on June 26, just two weeks before ICE’s policy change, the Brazilian Student Association at UNC — with the support of eight other organizations — sent a letter to UNC administration to highlight issues impacting international students during the COVID-19 pandemic. I asked Caroline and Francesca about this letter and its relevance to the uncertainty facing the international community today in light of the new federal guidelines. 

FDP: When we sent that letter two weeks ago, we had maybe five or six demands that were relating to our current situation and what we were dealing with at the time. This was before anything that happened over the weekend or on Monday came to light. So, we didn’t know what those restrictions were at the time. 

CC: The first one would be updating students on travel ban policies. We thought that the emails we were getting every single week were never addressing what was going on around the globe. Or, very vaguely, they were stating how everyone’s in a very hard situation, which is true, but still we wanted more specific information about that. So, we wanted UNC to advocate on our behalf to the government. Of course we realize that some of these demands are not up to UNC, such as travel ban policies. But, at least updating us and somehow advocating on our behalf.

Number two would be decreasing fees or offering some form of funding. So, in my case, for example, according to my plan, I’m going to stay in Brazil. And, with that in mind, I’m going to have to apply for a new visa. I’m going to have to go through that entire process again, which costs money. So that’s why we were saying some kind of funding. And about the decreasing fees, it was more related to those people who are not going to go back to UNC are going to take online classes. So, how come they want to charge us for something that we’re not going to be able to enjoy? 

Number three would be allowing international students to take a gap semester without having to reapply to the university. So, when I first heard that I would have to reapply to UNC, that freaked me out because I did not want to risk not getting in again. Now I know that reapplying is more of a formality for UNC. It’s more just signing some paperwork. But still, it’s a stress that we believe international students at this time and position, because COVID-19 obviously never happened before, we think that they should make some kind of exception or change the reapply, which can scare a lot of students. 

Number four, creating a one-credit class solely for international students that is not remote, thus ensuring their ability to remain in the United States. This one was added yesterday to our letter specifically to address the new policies by ICE. 

And number five is a more generic one. It would be UNC considering our specific circumstances and making plans and exceptions accordingly. Because, we feel like not only now but even before when things got even worse for us, they were making decisions that didn’t apply specifically to us. For example, one of my friends was in the U.S. when we were told we had to come home because of the first break of COVID-19. But, as an international student, she couldn’t just leave campus, she had nowhere to go, she’s not in-state, she’s not even from the U.S. A lot of flights were being canceled, and she had a deadline to leave campus. So, she was saying how those deadlines, as much as we understand them for health issues, they should have some kind of exception and understanding of our specific situation. 

EF: Though Caroline and Francesca said that they have not yet received an official response from the University to their demands, they said they appreciated the fact that UNC Global hosted a webinar the morning of July 9 for international students. The webinar focused on the Student Exchange and Visitor Program guidance concerning the fall 2020 semester. 

CC: So, Amanda, who’s our treasurer for BRASA, and I, we wanted to send our dean an email explaining, two weeks ago, how we were not satisfied with the way UNC was dealing with its international community. Those weekly emails that we get from the dean were never addressing anything related to anything that was happening outside the U.S. And, whenever he was explaining what was going to happen in the fall semester, it was never applicable to us. So, that was very frustrating. And, that email became something a lot bigger. So, we wrote a very long message, a very polite ... but at the same time explaining how we were not happy with the administration’s decisions. And then, we partnered with a lot of clubs and student organizations. So, the Asian American, Mi Pueblo, which is the Latinx community on campus and a lot of other groups. It was eight in total, and then nine with BRASA. They all signed the email and we sent it to our dean. 

FDP: We sent that letter and we were really hoping for a response, a timely response. We understand that the University is facing very hard times at the moment and they probably have a ton of emails to go through. So, we understood all of that and we gave them the time that we thought was appropriate for them to respond. I believe it’s been more than two weeks at this point, and we’ve heard no answer. 

But, today we had a Zoom call with, like, international advisers and the people who are responsible for the international students at UNC and for signing our visas and stuff like that. And, in the past two days I would say that their tone and their rhetoric has changed dramatically. Not to say that they didn’t care before, and now they do, because they’ve kind of been, so to say, called out, but I would say that we have become, us, like a priority, like we would have hoped to become three weeks ago when we were all trying to figure out what to do. I believe that the Zoom call today was very informative and very important. However, at this point I believe almost all international students have already made decisions regarding the fall semester. And, these decisions were made over the past four or five days. So, if they had had the meeting that they had today literally four days ago, I think that would have impacted international students at UNC a lot and benefitted us and given us the clarity that we were looking for. 

EF: I also spoke to Rohan Kumar, a Canadian sophomore who finished his first year at UNC on an L-2 visa, which is a study visa for dependents of nonimmigrant workers with work permits in the United States. Rohan, a member of UNC ONE, the University’s international student organization, said he is not sure whether or not he will return to the University given the COVID-19 outbreak and the recent ICE decision. 

Rohan Kumar: So, I actually was attending UNC on this visa called the L-2 dependent visa, which basically meant I was a dependent to my parents who were working in the U.S. So, I actually graduated high school in the U.S. and attended my first year at UNC pretty normally. But then, when the COVID outbreak hit New York and New Jersey, where I was living, my dad got laid off, and we had to head back to our home country, which is Canada. And, because of, like, this huge, like, loss of, like, income, I was really unsure whether or not I’d be able to return to UNC because international students at UNC are ineligible for any financial aid and most scholarships. So, we were planning on either having me take a gap year, or transferring to a Canadian university. 

The recent changes have sort of felt like all international students in America feel a bit uneasy. If the COVID outbreak gets worse in North Carolina and the Board of Governors decides to move UNC to fully online, then all the internationals would be uprooted, and we’d have to immediately return back to our home countries. And, that’s really complicated because a lot of our home countries are actually putting a lot of flight restrictions, it’s really hard to even travel back to our home countries. And, the flight tickets are also so expensive, and also traveling by plane during corona times is just really unsafe. 

So, I could transition to an F-1 visa, and I’m still in the process of doing that. An F-1 visa is what most internationals study on, in American colleges. But, either way, it just might not be financially feasible for me to return to UNC. And, there’s just, like, a lot of, like, economic and health risks if we go full online and I have to, like, move back to Canada. So, I’ve separately had to apply as a transfer student to some Canadian universities in case I can’t make it back this fall. 

EF: My colleague, Maydha Devarajan, reached out to UNC Media Relations for comment on international student concerns. She was directed to an emailed statement from Ioana Costant, the director of International Student and Scholar Services, in which Costant said that the “International Student and Scholar Services is working closely with senior University leaders to ensure the University is compliant with this new guidance and to continue to support international students.” 

I also reached out to UNC Media Relations for additional comment from University administrators. I was directed by them to a message Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz sent to the campus community on July 9. 

In his emailed message, Guskiewicz said that the University “reaffirms [its] commitment to and support of Carolina’s international students.” He went on to say in the email that each international student is an “essential member of our University community.”

This follows a tweet Guskiewicz posted a day before his emailed message on July 8, where he ensured international students that they can “continue [their] education here at #UNC.” 

While speaking to each of the students, I asked them what they hoped University leaders would take away from their demands. 

Rohan stressed the need for increased communication from the University. 

RK: In general, I think the first step would be establishing a proper line of communication. What’s particularly odd is once the SEVP news broke out, the international office here at UNC actually sent out an email to all the international students about, like, what the new changes were. And, that’s a really good sign because it’s showing that, like, they’re keeping us in the loop and they’re trying to work with us. But, I actually never received that email. And, when I contacted the international office, and, like, I’ve received all their emails in the past, they, sort of, thought that I was a first-year student and I had to tell them, “No, I’m a second-year student and I already should have received this email.” And then, they apologized to me and said they’d look into the issue with the Listserv. So, I think the most important thing for UNC at this particular stage is improving the line of communication and communicating properly with the international student body and all these changes that are happening right now. 

EF: Caroline and Francesca agreed. 

FDP: I think that we add a lot to the international community at UNC, not only to American students, but also to faculty members and teachers. And, we are an appreciated part of the student body. So, I believe in times like this we should feel the same appreciation. That appreciation shouldn’t be limited to just when we’re all on campus and everything is fine and there’s no virus going around. That position should be kept when we are in need of answers and when we need help from our American friends and our American teachers and faculty and administration. 

We just want to be listened and we want our concerns to be prioritized and not an afterthought. And, I also think that, if we’re talking about this moment in time specifically, it’s important that we stand up for what we believe is right. If that means that you’re an international student demanding more in-person classes or demanding that if UNC goes 100 percent online, that there is a plan there for you. And, if you’re not an international student, supporting the voices of international students and making sure that we are a part of the community that is being heard and is being prioritized, because for a long time, especially this month and the past few months, we felt that we were not being prioritized. 

CC: So, I completely agree with Francesca. I do want to say that we both love UNC. We’ve had a great time so far. And, especially now with everything that has been going on in the U.S., I do believe that change comes with voicing what we’re feeling, voicing what we’re thinking about what’s wrong in the University. So, that was the whole intent of sending the letter, of reaching out to the administration. So, we’re not here to bash or to say anything specifically negative about the dean or about UNC in general. We just want to see some changes to better prepare UNC to welcome international students in the future. 

If I could ask one thing of UNC, it would be talking to us. Either the dean, or someone else. Sending us updates, and very specific updates. 

FDP: This is totally not to bash on UNC. We love UNC. We genuinely couldn’t wait to go back when all of this happened in March. And, now that we are deciding our final plans for the fall, I think that we’re all taking into consideration our top priorities and trying to make a decision that feels wise to us and to our families. 

Although we haven’t received a response specifically from the Chancellor, from our Zoom today I believe that most of our concerns were addressed, so I’m thankful for that. And, I hope to continue seeing change and that answers are provided to us in a more timely manner and that we’re always treated as a priority at UNC. 

EF: This week’s episode of Heel Talk was co-edited and co-produced by Meredith Radford and myself. Maydha Devarajan contributed reporting for this episode. 

That’s it for this week’s episode of Heel Talk. I’m Evely Forte; I’ll see you next week. 

So, if you enjoyed today’s episode, please consider subscribing, rating and reviewing the episode and sharing it with someone that you think would enjoy it too. I’ll see you next time. 

Episode transcribed by Meredith Radford.

DTH stories mentioned in this episode: 

''A really cruel move': International students express concern over ICE visa restrictions,' by Maydha Devarajan

If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving an honest rating and review.