On July 6, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) of the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a statement mandating that international students on F-1 or M-1 student visas will not be permitted to stay in the country if their college or university chooses to conduct classes virtually.
Next semester, universities will fall into one of three categories: those providing entirely online instruction, those holding in-person classes and those with a hybrid instruction model. Should the pandemic worsen, many schools fear the possibility of an online academic year, leading them to look towards the hybrid model of instruction, which would allow international students to take multiple classes online and the remaining portion of their coursework in person. If their colleges and universities are strictly online, students holding F-1 or M-1 visas are required to leave the country or transfer to an institution holding in-person classes. International students are protected from deportation, then, if their school chooses to hold classes in person, as Kenyon aims to do this fall.
ICE’s statement is a reversal of a temporary adjustment to visa regulations during the spring 2020 semester, when colleges across the country made the choice to complete the semester online. Given that international students had such short notice to move back to their home countries, they were temporarily permitted to reside in the US while the semester finished.
This reversal did not come as a shock for Center of Global Engagement Director Marne Ausec and Associate Director of International Students & Scholars Rebecca Eckart ’07. While they sensed a decision like this was coming, they had hoped SEVP would grant students the same leeway as they were given in the spring 2020 semester.
“There is a real difference between surprise and heartbreak,” said Ausec, who has been working in the international student immigration field since before 9/11. “No, I wasn’t surprised [by this decision]. Is my heart broken? Yes.”
Despite her concerns for international students, she expressed confidence in the Kenyon community’s dedication to its international students at this time. She noted that several faculty members had reached out to offer support for international students. “I think the beauty of being at a small place like Kenyon is we can be flexible,” Ausec said. “And we don’t have answers yet, but I think the important piece for students to know is that people care, and they’re ready to help once we figure out if and when that help is needed.”
This reversal has sparked outrage from American and international students across the country, who have taken to social media to voice their disapproval. Many of them have sprung into action, launching petitions at their schools and encouraging others to call their senators and representatives. Kenyon’s international students are no exception.
“What we’ve [always] been told is ‘you have to do [immigration] the right way,’ and then we did it that way, their way, and then they come and they threaten to deport us while we’re doing it their way,” said Mahnoor Fahkar ’22, a Kenyon student from Pakistan. “Being used as a pawn in some political agenda is very infuriating.”
Amid the initial confusion and anger, Kenyon’s international population quickly began to wonder what this policy would mean for Kenyon. While the direct repercussions for the Kenyon community are not yet clear, President Sean Decatur expressed his sympathy and concern in a letter addressed to students and employees.
“We are committed to doing all we can to allow Kenyon students to continue their studies no matter their country of origin,” he wrote. “Diversity and inclusion are core principles for Kenyon, and we deeply value the perspectives and contributions of our international community.”
Although SEVP will still permit international students to attend classes on campus, the effects of their policy will vary depending on where students are from and whether they are currently in the United States. Many of Kenyon’s international students remained in the U.S. following the suspension of the College’s residential program in March. Should Kenyon cease its current plans to hold socially distanced, in-person classes this fall, these students will have no choice but to return to their home country. Among these students are Raul Romero ’22 and Arimya “A” Shaikh ’21.
Romero, who is from Venezuela, has been living in Washington, D.C. since March. Given Venezuela’s ongoing humanitarian crisis, Romero fears that the return to his home country would leave him in a vulnerable state. His situation is not unique; international students across the country fear returning to a home that is not safe, and many are concerned that this return would be a barrier in receiving the same education as their American peers.
“Returning to Venezuela would mean, first of all, not having reliable internet connection, not having power, having power outages, a lack of water, food shortages,” Romero said. “It would exacerbate already existing inequalities between some domestic students and some international students.”
Shaikh’s predicament, however, is more complicated. If Kenyon were to conduct classes remotely, she would be forced to return to India — a country she has not lived in since the age of nine nor visited in six years — despite holding residence in Texas.
“In my head, I was born in India, but I’m from Texas. My family has been here for over 12 years,” Shaikh explained.
Shaikh’s fears do not end there. An online semester would not simply send Shaikh back to India — it would also mean returning to India without her immediate family, who would remain in Dallas. This is because her father has a work visa, known as an H-1B, and her mother and younger brother are considered dependents as part of the H-4 visa contract. Up until March of 2019, Shaikh, too, was classified as a dependent. However, H-4 visas can only apply to spouses and children under the age of 21, causing these children to “age out” if their parents are still waiting for their permanent residency application, or a green card, to be approved. Though this is true of H-4 holders from all countries, young Indian immigrants are at a greater risk of deportation, as there is an immense backlog of green card applications from India. Anticipating this, Shaikh applied for an F-1 visa in order to ensure her status would not be jeopardized. But now, her very status as an F-1 holder leaves her vulnerable to deportation.
Aside from the looming threat of deportation, strict travel bans on certain countries make in-person attendance challenging and, for some, impossible. John Ortiz ’22, who is from Costa Rica, said that these travel restrictions (in addition to rising COVID-19 cases) mean that his attendance at Kenyon this fall is not guaranteed, as the borders may not open in time for the fall semester.
“Even if they do [open], [they won’t open] to the United States, because of how bad the situation over there is,” he said.
On top of travel bans, many international students still fear the possibility of contracting COVID-19 while travelling back to campus. However, in order to avoid deportation, they must attend classes in person, putting them in a highly vulnerable position. The notion that international students must make such a daunting decision was deeply concerning for Vice President of Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92.
“ICE’s decision is shockingly xenophobic, and downright cruel,” she wrote in an email to the Collegian. “I am most upset by the additional stress and fear that is being heaped on Kenyon’s international students. Many are being forced into an appalling decision: should I choose my health, or my educational future?”
Bonham added that the “one hope” she had was Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s lawsuit against the Trump administration, which was filed on July 8. The institutions argued that the administration’s failures to justify the decision and allow for public comment violates the Administrative Procedures Act.
This is just one of several ways universities have already begun to combat SVEP’s policy. Schools such as Columbia University, University of California, Berkeley and New York University, for instance, have since created one-credit, in-person classes for international students, designed specifically to prevent deportation. But most schools — Kenyon included — are still exploring their options.
Although Ausec and Eckart are aware of the risks brought by Kenyon’s in-person instruction, and are working on finding possible solutions should the College need to go online for the 2020-21 academic year, they are wary of the one-credit hybrid options that have been created for international students at other institutions.
“There’s a lot of conversation right now in the international ed[ucation] field and among schools about whether a one-credit class will be sufficient to satisfy what this guidance calls for. I think we are still trying to clarify what will actually satisfy this,” Eckart explained. “I don’t know that we want to necessarily do the minimum, either, because we’re also trying to safeguard students’ status.”
Despite these setbacks, the CGE is still working to find unique solutions to ensure Kenyon students feel safe and are able to attend the College for the 2020-21 academic year. Faculty, too, remain committed to supporting students in any way they can. However, faculty support alone may not be enough. In order to ensure safety and enact real change for international students, Shaikh hopes that the College administration will dedicate themselves to the cause and be especially mindful of each student’s unique experience.
“I know it’s a lot to ask [of the administration] to think about seven to 10 percent of students, but really think about that seven to 10 percent,” Shaikh said. “Please get creative and financially support your students.”
Those who wish to support international students at this time may sign the petition, “Allow International Students to Finish Their Degrees” here.