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New ICE policy “particularly insidious and cruel,” say international students, forced to choose between visas and health

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International students, already dealing with travel restrictions and an unusual upcoming semester amid a pandemic, now face the prospect of losing their visa status and ability to stay in the country if they don’t take in-person classes.

Under a new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement rule announced Monday, international students studying under F-1 educational visas must take at least one on-campus class in fall or lose their visa status. The policy, which President Vincent Price called “misguided” in a Tuesday statement, comes during a time of uncertainty for many international students, compounding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Anastasia Kārkliņa, Trinity ‘14 and now a 6th-year doctoral candidate in the program in literature who has studied at Duke with an F-1 visa since 2010, said that in her eyes, the new policy leaves Duke and its students with an impossible decision: either force international students to leave the country or reopen a campus in the middle of a pandemic.

“It’s an impossible choice that we are being asked to make, that is particularly insidious and cruel and should be seen as an extension of this administration’s organized attack on all documented and undocumented non-citizens,” Kārkliņa said.

Kārkliņa said ICE’s suggestions for students at schools that are moving online are unreasonable. Options like “transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status,” as the press release suggests, are unrealistic for many students for financial reasons, she said. 

“We risk displacing students who don’t have the financial resources to go elsewhere and—this point is particularly important—cannot transfer to other universities that have in-person instruction,” because their financial aid packages may not transfer with them, she said.

Sophomore Angikar Ghosal, an international student from India, told The Chronicle that if Duke had to switch to fully online instruction during the semester, he and many other international students would not be able to afford a plane ticket within the 10 days the policy allows for students to leave the country. 

Junior Winston Yau said that international students would then have to carry the burden of potentially spreading the virus back to their home countries.

“I definitely do believe that this is a part of a larger issue, because why are you trying to kick them out of the country? It just doesn't make any sense. So I personally do think it's part of a larger issue,” said senior Ebehiremhen Anita Izokun.

Duke responds to the policy

President Vincent Price, in his Tuesday statement, criticized the policy as “misguided” and wrote that it would harm “young people and the colleges and universities that are vital to our society.”

However, for some Duke students—both those affected and others who have taken action to support them—the statement did not offer a clear path for Duke going forward, particularly given the broad impacts of the policy on members of the University community. 

“Although the statement is appreciated, it's not enough, because it did not say anything about actionable steps that Duke plans to make," said  Izokun, who co-wrote a guest letter in The Chronicle calling on Duke to release an “actionable statement” and started an online petition with the same goal, which had received more than 1,600 signatures as of Friday night.

Izokun—who said that she is not directly impacted by the policy—pointed to the recent move by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to sue the Department of Homeland Security and ICE over the policy as a quick, practical step Duke could take. 

“Granted, maybe it’s because they don’t know what to do yet and they are still making decisions, and I’m sure they’ll probably release something in the future, so I don’t want to make it seem like ‘oh, they’re just not going to do anything’ because they very well may, but other schools are acting very, very fast,” Izokun said Wednesday.

Later that day, Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, told The Chronicle that Duke plans to join amicus briefs supporting that lawsuit.

Schoenfeld said Tuesday that Duke learned about the new policy via ICE’s news release and remained in the dark about specifics of the policy,. No guidance had been issued to universities beyond the initial statement, making impacts unclear, but Schoenfeld said Duke was concerned about the repercussions. 

“This is a deeply unfortunate and deeply damaging policy for higher education,” Schoenfeld said.

He continued, “Our international students are incredibly valuable members of the Duke community, of the higher education community, and this kind of blunt-instrument guidance and limitations can only hurt individuals personally and can only do damage to a very important institution, namely U.S. higher education.”

He said University was seeking more information about the policy, while also expressing its concerns. 

“We have been in constant communication with outside counsel for immigration and visa issues, with our national associations who are analyzing this,” Schoenfeld said. “We have mobilized our internal teams, our legal and international teams and our academic units to ensure that we can create opportunities for students, and we’ve also expressed our concerns to our members of Congress.”

In a Wednesday email to international students, a copy of which was obtained by The Chronicle, Provost Sally Kornbluth and Executive Vice Provost Jennifer Francis emphasized Duke’s commitment to supporting its international students. They noted that Duke will offer in-person, hybrid and online courses in the Fall semester, and that they believe this approach will “enable continuing international students with a valid visa to be in the U.S. to study under the new SEVP guidance.”

Ghosal pointed out that it is critical to ensure that both groups of international students—those required to leave and those required to come back to the United States—are protected.

Yau, an international student from Hong Kong, told The Chronicle that many international students residing outside the United States will have to face additional risks in returning. He said that many of his mainland Chinese peers must go to Cambodia first and stay for 14 days before returning to the United States. As of now, individuals who have been in China, Iran, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Ireland or the European Schengen Area in the last 14 days are barred from entering the United States.

Izokun’s co-author on the guest letter, junior James Mbuthia, said that international students and domestic students alike should be able to choose whether to return to campus in the middle of a pandemic. 

“On more actionable steps or more tangible issues, I would say that all students who are currently outside the United States and are not able to come back should be able to take all virtual classes online for credit—that seems like a reasonable, actionable demand,” Mbuthia said. “In fact, every student who decides and opts to take their classes virtually should be given the opportunity to do so because even American students might not necessarily feel like it’s perfect for them to come back to come back to the school environment.”

Both Izokun and Mbuthia emphasized that their goal is for Duke to demonstrate a commitment to protecting international students, who “are important and integral to the survival of the American economy and to the survival of American universities” and part of the Duke community, Mbuthia said. 

At the same time, Mbuthia argued that Duke’s plans need to take into account the COVID-19 pandemic. While individualized plans that ensure international students can take in-person classes are not inherently flawed, he said, they need to ensure on-campus classes are safe and secure, rather than pushing international students to risk their health to take classes.

“To me, if we start talking about what classes international students can take—are they not your students? You can’t create an individualized program as a bandaid to a bleeding wound,” Mbuthia said. 

The decision between risking exposure to COVID-19 or losing their visa status is particularly difficult for graduate students, who face a different living situation from most undergraduates. 

“What I think a lot of Americans don’t recognize is that for many graduate students, whose degrees may take anywhere from five to seven years, their homes are here in the United States,” Kārkliņa said. “Graduate students don’t live in dorms. We have bought cars and have signed leases here in the United States, and we have partners and friends and some of us even have children here. And the reality of the situation is that many students—particularly graduate students—simply don’t have anywhere else to go until they complete their degree and make specific plans for the next steps in their career.”

‘Told to pack up and leave’

For some students, the policy is not surprising. 

Junior Yi Chen, an international student from China, wrote in a message to The Chronicle that in his two years in the United States, he has realized that the hope for a future in the country “is a luxury [he] can’t afford,” as his visa status could change at any time.

“To be honest, I wasn't even that surprised when I heard about the new rule because when you're an immigrant here, you're always prepared to be told that you don't belong, to be told to pack up and leave,” he wrote.

Chen added that such situations make him question why he is trying so hard to immigrate to the United States “if it is so clearly trying to keep [him] out.” 

Despite the difficulties he and other international students have faced in obtaining their student visas and coming to the United States, he wrote that they “still come to the U.S. for its education.” But now educational institutions are forced to choose between losing their international students or reopening in a pandemic, he wrote.

Yau echoed these sentiments, noting that to Americans the policy may be surprising, but for many international students this has happened “times and times before.”

“For me personally, I don't know if I have a viable future in the United States,” he said. “I'm really not sure if staying here is synonymous to pursuing my dreams because of all the hurdles and restrictions and barriers that we face, and whether I want to walk on this thin wire for one or two more decades just to stay here is worth it.”

For Mbuthia, the new policy brings up broader questions about access to education, and whether building and maintaining community is truly at the center of current education. 

“What's happening right now is showing us that education accessibility has to be mandatory. It has to. We have to start getting a sustainable way of teaching people,” Mbuthia said. “We have to have a sustainable way of educating people that is centered around community, that devalues money and centers community.”

Ghosal said that although this has been a difficult, stressful time, he has been grateful for international students’ support for each other and touched by the empathy of domestic students.

“The reality is there are tons of domestic American students who are not affected at all by this. Even say all internationals get kicked out, their lives will remain the same,” he said. “But the fact that they're taking initiative on social media and contacting their House Representatives and Senators... I am personally touched by their empathy.”

Beyond petitions and government action, Chen added that you can support your international friends by just texting them and telling them how much you appreciate their presence—showing them you care.

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