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'A really cruel move': International students express concern over ICE visa restrictions

Members of the Brazilian Student Association (BRASA) at UNC pose at a meeting. Photo courtesy of Francesca Del Posso.

Updated July 14, 9:59 p.m.: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security are rescinding guidance that previously prevented international students on the F-1 visa from taking full online course loads during the fall semester while in the U.S., The Harvard Crimson reported Tuesday. 

The article states that the resolution happened less than five minutes into a hearing for the case filed last week by Harvard University and MIT, which had asked the district court to bar the two federal parties from carrying out the policy.

Caroline Coelho, who is on the F-1 visa and serves as president of UNC's Brazilian Student Association, said while she is happy and relieved about the decision, she doesn't think it resolves all of the issues international students are facing. Due to travel restrictions, she can't go back to the U.S. unless she quarantines in Mexico or another country for two weeks, which she said is not a reality for her. 

"I'm still going to lose my visa by staying here," Coelho said. "I'm still going to have to decide between between taking online classes or taking a gap semester, which either way won't allow me to maintain my visa status."

As of Tuesday evening, she said she had not received any updates from UNC's International Student and Scholar Services about ICE and DHS rescinding the policy.

"Like I said, this goes back to the main issue of an email or a letter — what we're advocating for was just maintaining a good communication system," she said. "... I guess I expected a little bit more from them and UNC in general, but again, very relieved this is happening." 

Rafaela Bayas didn’t intend on returning to Ecuador in 2020. After her spring study abroad program in Scotland and summer internship in Charleston, the rising senior planned to move into her house in Chapel Hill for the school year. 

However, the COVID-19 pandemic caused her spring program to end early, and with the Trump administration’s European travel ban, Bayas was forced to return to her home country. Now, she said she’s not sure if she’ll be able to come back to UNC’s campus at all.

‘What do we do?’

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 because of the 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. 

Following the announcement, Harvard University and MIT have filed lawsuits against the Trump administration for the new guidance. Several other institutions have since announced plans to to support international students through in-person class options.

Bayas, who is on an F-1 visa, is one of more than 3,600 international students and scholars at UNC — more than 3,000 of whom are F-1 and J-1 visa holders. 

ICE’s modifications allow F-1 visa holders under a hybrid model, like the one UNC has adopted for the fall, to take more than one class or three credit hours online. However, Bayas said questions remain as to what will happen if the University ends up transitioning to entirely remote instruction.

“The people who we reach out to for answers don't know the answer either, so what do we do?” Bayas said. “We can't just hang out here and wait for them to tell us something — I mean, we need to book flights, we need to sublease our houses, we need to figure out what we're going to do with our things.”

Currently, UNC plans to offer multiple modes of delivery in the fall, including in-person instruction, entirely remote classes and a blend of the two. Students were able to view their official academic schedules July 1, though Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin said they are not yet finalized.

Bayas said she now has to change her entire schedule for the fall to ensure she has in-person classes. Currently, her classes are all online, which she was taking to fulfill graduation requirements. She said because she no longer can remain in Ecuador and take her classes online, if she can’t change her schedule, her only options are to either take a leave of absence or withdraw for the semester. 

Since the announcement of restrictions for F-1 visa holders, UNC students have put together a spreadsheet and website compiling a list of classes with in-person instruction, and other resources for international students, which Bayas said she has been going through. 

Bayas also said she feels the announcement from ICE and the Trump administration’s suspensions of other immigration visas earlier this summer send the message that “they don’t want us.”

“I think it's purely a political move, and hopefully they'll realize that it really doesn't make sense,” she said. “And it's cruel — for me, it's a really cruel move that they are doing.”

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Part of the American college and UNC experience is attending football games like this one. Photo courtesy of Rafaela Bayas.

In response to questions regarding what circumstances might prompt UNC’s transition to entirely remote instruction, UNC Media Relations directed The Daily Tar Heel to Carolina Together, the website outlining the University’s return to on-campus operations in the fall. The website states that decisions about what would lead to an off-ramp in the fall will be made in consultation with infectious disease and public health experts. 

According to ICE's announcement, if an institution eventually transitions to complete remote instruction, it must update its information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System within 10 days of making the change. 

“Nonimmigrant students within the United States are not permitted to take a full course of study through online classes,” the announcement states. “If students find themselves in this situation, they must leave the country or take alternative steps to maintain their nonimmigrant status such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave.”

The Student Exchange and Visitor Program (SEVP) previously allowed international students to temporarily take a full online course load for the spring and summer semesters because of the pandemic.

Ioana Costant, director of International Student and Scholar Services, sent an email to international students on July 7 about University procedures in light of the new policy. Costant said the SEVP will provide more information once the guidance is published in the Federal Register, the national government’s daily journal, as a temporary final rule. ISSS hopes the additional information will offer more clarity, she said.

“If, in the future, the University moves to all-online instruction, per SEVP guidance, F-1 students must then depart the United States or transfer to another school offering in-person classes,” she wrote. 

She also said ISSS is working with senior leaders within the University to ensure UNC is compliant with the guidance, and invited international students to reach out with concerns and questions.

‘An afterthought’

Bayas said there are certain challenges unique to being an international student in the United States that others in the UNC community might not know about. In particular, she noted the lack of nearby support, restrictions when it comes to job opportunities off campus and the tedious process of filing paperwork, like the I-20 form. The I-20, or Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, is a crucial document for international students, and is necessary for entering the United States.  

“I don't think anyone that doesn't have any international student friends understands everything that we go through with visa processing, with immigration, with even being scared on border control because they might not let us in,” Bayas said. “... I think one of the biggest things, at least at UNC, is just (to) create consciousness about who we are, what we go through and also all the positive things that we can bring to campus.”

Francesca Del Posso and Caroline Coelho, two UNC students from Brazil both on the F-1 visa, said it has been difficult navigating a general lack of transparency and communication from the University about how the international student community may be impacted by the pandemic.

On June 26, the Brazilian Student Association (BRASA) and eight other student organizations on campus sent a letter to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, expressing concerns on behalf of the international student community and outlining a list of changes they would like to see the University adopt. 

“We do not see it as fair nor inclusive to treat us as a separate entity from the other students,” the letter stated. “Many international students have had to personally contact the ISSS to voice our concerns instead of being contacted by the university … while we understand that we represent a minority of the student body, we do not wish to be an afterthought when the university makes decisions or sends information regarding the pandemic.”

Del Posso, the marketing director for BRASA, said while they haven’t received a response from the University yet, getting specific information about potential accommodations and exemptions that UNC may make is crucial. She also said that UNC’s response has surprised her, especially as she feels she’s always been supported and “welcomed with open arms” by the University as an international student.

“It's just ironic because I've been treated so well as an international student at UNC, which might be my luck...but clearly in times of crisis, they don't show up,” Del Posso said.  

Both Del Posso and Coelho reiterated that they understand that the new guidance comes from the federal government, but said that open communication by the University would be the “very first step" to supporting students.

In an email statement via Media Relations about the ICE announcement, Costant said each international student’s situation is unique, and UNC handles immigration cases on an individual basis and with respect for student privacy. 

“The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill values and supports our international students and their contributions to campus,” she said. 

Guskiewicz also tweeted July 8 that the administration is working to support international students through an uncertain time to guarantee they can continue their education at the University.

'Making it harder and harder'

Awanti Damle is a Raleigh-based associate with employment law firm Ogletree Deakins. Damle, whose practice focuses on employment-based immigration to the United States, said ICE’s announcement will have major implications with regard to the employment of international students. 

Specifically, she said the F-1 visa can provide a pathway to remain in the United States through employment sponsorship. After graduation and with the appropriate work authorization, F-1 students can stay in the country for potentially up to three years, which allows visa holders to look for full-time positions and an employer who might sponsor them on a more permanent basis. 

“So the natural progression is F-1, F-1 to H-1B, and then hopefully if that employer is willing to help sponsor for their green card, then H-1B (to) then hopefully to immigrant visa or green card,” she said.

Damle said the “million dollar question” right now is whether students taking online classes in their home countries are still eligible to apply for a year of optional practical training (OPT), which typically follows graduation for F-1 visa holders.

She also said it’s difficult for visa holders to prepare in advance for restrictions, and that the federal government needs to provide more clarity regarding the announcement.

“They're just making it harder, and harder, and harder for people to come here and build a life here, which is really frustrating,” Damle said. 

Danica Dy, a 2020 UNC graduate from Canada, is returning to UNC to begin a Ph.D program in the fall. She said though she hasn’t received confirmation of the format of the graduate courses yet, there will likely always be some in-person component to her program because it is research-based, which poses uncertainty over the new guidelines. 

“What about students who aren't just taking classes?” she said. “What about students who (have) RA or TA positions? What about students who have these other things that are part of their training and their actual student status?”

She said particularly for major research institutions, like UNC, where international students and faculty play a large role in research operations, the impact of recent immigration policies will be significant. 

Vladas Pipiras, a professor in UNC's Department of Statistics and Operations Research, said in an email that consular services are also closed in many countries and visas are not being issued. He said five of the department's 14 incoming Ph.D students are unlikely to make it to UNC before the fall semester begins.

Dy also said she thinks the announcement could further incentivize institutions to remain open in the fall because international students pay higher tuition fees that would support operating costs. She said while she understands that it’s difficult for higher education institutions to plan for the pandemic and that she believes the University will do what they can for international students, she also thinks there are far-reaching public health implications for campus communities in reopening.

“That economic risk isn't really worth the health and safety, and the lives of not just international students' lives, but every student on a college campus, because it will inherently affect everyone,” Dy said. “And that's the big problem; it's like, are you prioritizing the economy or public health at this point?”

Since taking office, President Trump has implemented multiple anti-immigration policies, including an executive order banning foreign nationals from several majority-Muslim countries in 2017 and attempts to rollback the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. 

Dy said that she believes the most recent ICE announcement won’t be the last restriction on immigration put into place by the federal government.

“It means a lot to be given that opportunity (to study in the United States),” she said. “And then to have the strings pulled in a way that would further restrict or impact the way that you're able to utilize that rare opportunity, it just makes things really difficult.”