International Students face Uncertain Future under ICE Directive

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The University of Minnesota. Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

“I literally sobbed. I didn’t expect this to happen.” That’s how Krishna Chandra Bavandla, a graduate student from India at the University of Minnesota, said he reacted when he first learned of the new ICE directive about international students. Under the new policy, announced on July 6, students on F-1 and M-1 visas may not remain in the U.S. if they take a fully online course load. 

Bavandla is student in the Computer Science and Engineering Department, where most of the classes are online. “Everything is through the computer,” he said. “Nowadays everybody has wifi.” 

For Bavandla, it was always his dream to study in the United States. “This is taking my dreams away from me,” he said.

The same day of the ICE announcement, Harvard and MIT announced a lawsuit against ICE over the directive, and institutions all over the country, including the University of Minnesota, joined in with amicus briefs

Hope of the lawsuit blocking the ICE action comforts some international students living in Minnesota, but many are still uneasy. One PhD student in the College of Liberal Arts, from Hong Kong, said she doesn’t even want to think about the possibility of having to travel back home, both because of the political situation in Hong Kong currently, and also the virus. “I don’t have personal space at home,” she said. “How would I be able to teach a class in a time zone that is half a day away?” 

For Rahul, a graduate student in data science, also at the U, the new policy doesn’t seem real.  “My perspective is that this is so big, it is very hard for something like this to happen,” he said.

Rahul came to the United States because he had hit a plateau in his studies. Now, his life is here. Going back to India isn’t all that simple. “My life would be completely upside down,” he said. “I have my stuff here, I have my life here. It would be a mess.” 

International students make up 5.5 percent of the total U.S. student body, according to educationdata.org. That’s more than a million people, with the largest percentage of those students coming from China and India. At the University of Minnesota, international students make up almost 12 percent of student enrollment, with about half of those students in graduate programs, according to the 2018 Annual Report by the U’s International Student and Scholar Services. 

And in some departments, the percentage is much higher. According to Jason McGrath, an Associate Professor at the U’s Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Department, about 3/4 of the students are International students, he said.

McGrath’s reaction when he learned of the order was that the new directive just doesn’t make sense. “It just strikes me as another instance where the anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner sentiment of this administration is leading to policies they have not through at all. They don’t know what they are doing,” McGrath said. 

He is still waiting for more guidance from his department about what the new policy will mean for students, including PhD students who are no longer taking course work, instead working on their dissertation as they consult closely with there advisors, and use the library and other resources the university provides. “These are such basic aspects of student situations. It just seems like nobody thought about this in advance, or they simply don’t care,” he said. 

Another University of Minnesota professor, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation as an immigrant himself, said he has doubts this new directive will end up happening, in part because of how much money international students bring into the education industry. “International students are big money,” the professor said. “Universities across the country charge international students at a much higher rate. Economically, they stand to lose if they do not follow these guidelines.” The professor added that he thought the intention of the policy was to pressure colleges and universities to hold in-person classes. 

Rucha Ambikar, at Bemidji State University, said Bemidji has less than 5 percent international students, but in recent years they had made a concerted effort to increase that number. “We are focusing on them as a growth area,” she said. 

Ambikar herself was an international student in graduate school, and came to the U.S. on a student visa, which she remarked was already a restrictive process before the new announcement. “This has thrown a lot of lives into disarray,” she said. 

For Ambikar, the order seems needlessly cruel. “There are a million students that would be effected by this order,” she said. She worries that for some students that have their studies disrupted, many would not return. 

Gaio Lakin, a member of the engineering faculty at Normandale Community College, said he worries about the financial burden for his international students. Normandale is 1/3 of the cost of the University, so many students take two years at Normandale and transfer to the University later. 

“For the international students I know, you’ve already made arrangements for your housing, and flying back and forth isn’t cheap. Those students often are not super rich students,” he said. “My biggest concern is whether it is going to be  hard for students to come back. It seems likely that is the intent.” 

More than the possibility of having to move home, many students said their biggest worry remained the virus itself. “I would say the worse case scenario is have to take an in-person class and get the virus,” said a Chinese graduate student named Meng. 

For her, going back home is not a possibility. “I myself am not going back to China,” Meng said. “It’s safe to remain where I am while the pandemic is going on. 

“I think the pandemic concerns me more,” said Yang, another University of Minnesota graduate student from China. “If schools are forced to open, it puts every one at risk. I just feel that its’s insane.”

Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based journalist. She's a regular contributor to The UpTake, and also contributes to TC Daily Planet and City Pages. Her work can also be found at mnartists, VitaMN, Classical MPR and in other local publications.

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