Monday July 6 proved to arrive with ominous news for international students studying in the US, some of them still in the US, others back home for the summer as well as those who were scheduled to start university this fall. A formidable statement issued by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stated that all foreign students in the US taking online classes would have to leave the US while those scheduled to get in would be denied visa. The directive can affect the over one million international students in the US; around 7,500 are Bangladeshis enrolled in undergraduate or graduate programmes.
The announcement, came at a time when these young men and women were trying to cope with the anxiety of staying cooped up in their apartments in the US and suddenly transitioning from regular Spring classes to online classes because of the pandemic. They had to take classes online (at the same cost as regular classes) because US university authorities were following the protocol to protect their students, faculty and staff from becoming infected by Covid 19. Because there is a pandemic out there—everywhere, with the US being one of the worst hit bearing the loss of already at least 130,000 lives. Because containing infections is very difficult when there are thousands of people walking around in close proximity as is the case with university campuses. Online classes were therefore, not chosen by international students. For many universities online classes are the only classes offered next fall. So according to ICE—if a student is enrolled for only online classes they cannot stay in the US and may face deportation if they do.
So what would the cost be to the US? Many international students pay exorbitant tuition fees that significantly contribute to the universities' development. They also pay rent for their dorms or apartments and spend money on food, health insurance, transportation, clothes, entertainment and so on. But it's not just the around USD 45 billion they contribute to the US economy (US Department of Commerce 2018). Foreign students give American students the opportunity to learn about other cultures and different world perspectives. Foreign students come on merit so they bring in talent and innovation; many are involved in groundbreaking scientific research. Which is why there are so many international students in MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley and all the other prestigious US universities. It is a mutually enriching experience that promotes camaraderie, harmony and peace among people of diverse cultures. These are compelling reasons why universities should have international students yet they seem to have little relevance in the context of this regulation.
If followed through, the regulation will impose unbelievable hardship on foreign students. Many have signed year-long leases on their apartments or dorms, many share apartments with local students—how will their contracts be sorted out? Will they be refunded rent or security deposits already paid for apartments they have rented? Others would have to move out of their apartments or dorm rooms with all their belongings. Where will they store them in the middle of a pandemic, more importantly, for how long? What happens to students who are from countries that have travel bans? What happens to newly enrolled students eagerly waiting to start university in the fall?
Let's not even get to the mental anguish of leaving their university life, their friends and going into an uncertain future. Many students come from countries where Internet connections are not guaranteed to run smoothly which will make online classes a frustrating affair. The difference in time zones itself will make attendance and concentration challenging. Getting enrolled into another institution that offers in person classes would mean an extra expense many students can ill afford. These institutions may not even be able to provide the students the courses they need to complete their degree or maintain their status as required by US immigration law.
So what is going on?
As analysts have commented the reasons behind this harsh move seems more political than pragmatic and a way to arm-twist universities into resuming regular classes. As President Trump has tweeted: "SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!". So just like wearing a mask has been perceived as an act of defiance against the president instigated by Liberals and Democrats and other undesirable opponents rather than a life-saving safety measure advocated by scientists the world over, keeping schools and universities closed is perceived to be another display of rebellion. But what the Trump administration fails to acknowledge is that having online classes in lieu of physical classes is the least desirable alternative for universities but it happens to be the only one if the health of the students and university staff are to be protected. American universities pride themselves for having the most learned scholars and academics teaching participatory, engaging, face-to-face classes and providing vibrant, intellectually stimulating campuses for their students. In American classrooms, students are forced to think for themselves, be creative, inquisitive and challenge conventional viewpoints. The sprawling campuses, with their grand architecture give students a unique university experience which includes building friendships with a diverse student community and creating memories that will stay with them forever. It is precisely why it is a dream for students all over the world to go for higher education in the US. Online classes deprive students of all these joys of regular academic life and make imparting education challenging, to say the least, for the universities. So nobody is excited about these online classes, it is a compromise that is considered a necessary measure purely because of a health crisis that threatens lives. Covid 19 is still here and infections in many US states continue to rise. The conditions are still extraordinary and so imposing the standard regulations during normal times (that were initially stalled because of the pandemic) is hardly logical.
The only sliver of hope for international students devastated and confused by all this is if their institutions offer what is known as the hybrid model—a mixture of online and in person classes. This allows them to take more than one class (three credit hours) online and stay in the US. If their institutions do not offer hybrid classes then they can transfer to another institution that does offer such classes to maintain status and stay. This is applicable only for F1 non-immigrant students and not for F-1 students in English language training programmes or students pursuing vocational degrees on M-1 visas.
As expected there has been widespread backlash against a move that contradicts the US's image as a country that has traditionally attracted students from all over the world. Harvard and MIT have sued the Department of Homeland Security and ICE, seeking a temporary restraining order against the rule. According to Forbes the suit says that the policy is "arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion".
Meanwhile universities all over the US are in a quandary of whether to have hybrid classes or stay exclusively online.
Everything therefore depends on whether there will be a spike in Covid-19 infections in the fall—as feared by health experts. If that is the case it will make it very difficult to hold even hybrid classes. So if the regulation is imposed all foreign students will be denied entry into the US. It may also result in the loss of many new international students for US universities and direct them to more welcoming countries. And that would hurt the US's educational institutions as well as its economy.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Senior Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.