US President Donald Trump’s administration is not done adding uncertainty to the lives of foreigners on legally valid visas in America.

Last week, the US threw the plans of skilled professionals out of whack by suspending foreign work visas, including the coveted H-1B, until the end of the year. Now, US authorities have announced that international students on F-1 or M-1 visas whose classes in the upcoming semester are fully online will not be allowed to stay in the country.

On Wednesday, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology asked a federal court to block the order. But the surprise move has thrown the international academic and student community in the US into confusion, even as the country struggles to handle the coronavirus crisis as it crosses the three million-case mark.

“What exactly is the point of all this?” said Adithyan Vetrivelan, an electrical engineering PhD student at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas. “How does this help anyone?”
Vetrivelan has been in US since 2017, first pursuing a master’s degree and then moving on to pursue a PhD.

Although Vetrivelan thinks that he will not be directly affected by the restrictions, he is worried about his friends pursuing master’s degrees, and even his professors. “It is going to be a burden on the students and in some cases, it might also be a burden on the professors to have to arrange for the class to meet in person,” he said.

Trump’s agenda

The rule change issued by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Monday said that only the students who shift to courses with person-toperson tuition will be allowed to stay in the country.

“Students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States,” the order said. “The US Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will US Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States.”

The order added that students who are already in the country must leave or face deportation if their classes go completely online.

“Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status or potentially face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”

Soon after the new rules were issued, there was much debate about what the US government was attempting to do by kicking out international students who are spending money to be in the country.

Shanmukha Teja, an Indian student scheduled to begin a master’s programme in analytics at Georgia Tech University with the 2020 autumn semester, said that the new rules seem to be a “nudge from ICE to restart the universities’ on-campus teaching”.

US President Donald Trump, whose administration has all along sought to downplay the dangers of Covid-19, wants to see schools and universities opening up at the start of the academic year, usually towards the end of August, since it will signal a return to normality.

But with the US still in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic – having seen more than 134,000 deaths – and with little likelihood of a virus before the end of the year, universities have had to make tough decisions about whether to hold in-person classes.

Some, like Harvard, have said that all undergraduate classes will be online-only in the Fall semester, from August to December. Others are offering a mix of in-person and online classes.

Loans & fees

“The university has intimated us that they will follow a hybrid approach where some classes will be held in-person and some online, but there is no further clarity on this yet,” said Aditi Swaroop, a computer science graduate student at the University of Southern California.

Already students are grappling with the fact that the exorbitant cost of a foreign degree now comes without in-person classes. Now there is concern that the students will not even be allowed to be in the US to take those classes.

“I took an educational loan to study here, will I be paying the fee for attending classes online while in India?” Swaroop said. “It is highly unlikely that the university will reduce the course fee in case the classes are moved online completely.”

One Twitter user also drew attention to the impact of the decision on students who move to the US from countries that do not guarantee the availability of high-speed internet.

The rule applies to those on F-1 and M-1 visas in the US, which in 2019 included more than 55,000 Indians.

Although many universities have told students that courses will involve a mix of in-person and online classes, the order has raised concerns about what happens if universities change track mid-way.

Shreya Goel, who plans to study at the University of Michigan starting this year, said that her department announced that, after the Thanksgiving break at the end of November, the rest of the Fall semester will be online for all students.

“If they stick to this plan, I will have to come back to India and then go back to the US again for the next semester,” she said. Travelling for long hours on international flights amidst the pandemic is a concern shared by many students.

Accomodation fears and long flights

The University of Wisconsin in Madison had also issued a similar directive – all classes will be moved online after the Thanksgiving break. Omjaa Rai, who is majoring in computer science at the university, said that the uncertainty is affecting her mental health.

“My immediate concern is that I am going to have to leave the US nine days before the semester ends if the Thanksgiving directive is stuck to,” she said. “I was also supposed to graduate next semester, what happens then? Will they let me return to the US after I graduate? Will I still be able to get a job here on Optional Practical Training after graduation?”

Many are also wondering what this means for accommodation.

“Housing in the US is pretty brutal,” PhD student Vetrivelan said. “Once you’re locked into a lease, it’s on you to honour the whole lease amount or find another person to whom you can sublet your apartment. Deposits are returned partially after subtracting the damages but that’s only at the end of the lease. If you owe money on a lease and decide to leave, your credit score will be wrecked and you probably will not get a house in the same state again.”

In the aftermath of the order, some universities wrote to international students assuring them that they will not be forced to leave. In others, students banded together to figure out solutions such as swapping into a US students’ “in-person” class.

But in these cases and for those universities that have, for now, committed to following a mix of online and in-person classes, there might still be trouble depending on offical regulations.

Pranav Sharma, an F-1 visa holder, is currently interning at an American multinational technology company on the Curricular Practical Training portion of his visa.

A student at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, Sharma is hopeful of resuming university for the autumn semester under a hybrid approach. “However, if the governor of Massachusetts decides to not allow the universities to open, it will create problems for me,” he said.

“I will not feel comfortable travelling back to India on a flight in the middle of a pandemic. I will also have to leave behind my non-essential belongings here, and I don’t know how to prepare for this situation since the lease on my rented accommodation expires in August 2020.”

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