The international community at the University has expressed deep concern over new regulations by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that restrict international students from entering or remaining in the U.S. if their fall semester will be held entirely online. The Student and Exchange Visitor Program within ICE announced adjustments to their regulations for nonimmigrant students on Monday and requires that schools operating fully online or not reopening must report their status by July 15. Certified schools with modified operations — such as the University, which chose to offer a hybrid of in-person and online instruction — must confirm their plans by August 1.
According to the new regulations, F-1 students — those in an academic program — and M-1 students — those in a vocational program — attending schools operating entirely online are prohibited from entering or remaining in the U.S. if they take a fully online course load. Students enrolled in these schools will not be issued visas and will not be permitted to enter the country, while those currently in the U.S. will be forced to either depart or transfer to a school offering in-person instruction.
For schools resuming normal in-person instruction, F-1 students can only take a maximum of one course, or three credit hours, online. The University falls under the hybrid model category, which permits students to take more than one online class as long as they are not taking a fully online course load. This means, however, that in order to maintain an active visa status, international students who are currently overseas will be forced to return to the U.S. to take at least one in-person class.
The announcement of the new regulations raised concerns among the international student community at the University, adding to the uncertainty they were already facing about the fall.
“I felt disappointed to see another policy made only for the purpose of politics without paying any attention to the real situation,” said Tzu-Yueh Wang, a rising second-year College student from Taiwan. “It’s a brute action that does not take the consequences into consideration.”
Like many others, Wang faces the dilemma of choosing between his health and safety and maintaining his visa status. Due to the policy, Wang may be forced to return to the U.S. if he wants his visa status to remain active, but that also means increased exposure to COVID-19. Wang said, however, that if the current COVID-19 situation does not improve by the end of August, he will not return to the U.S. despite any influence on his F-1 visa. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, current projections estimate 165,000 deaths in the U.S. by August 31 — a steady increase from the current death toll of 130,000 in the U.S. alone.
On the other hand, rising second-year College student Romeo Wada, an international student from Japan, still intends to return to Grounds in the fall. However, he said that he’s worried about how dangerous it may be when traveling through airports. While almost everyone in Japan wears a mask and has continued to do so despite low infection numbers, it’s not the same case in the U.S. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in June, about 65 percent of U.S. adults say they regularly wear a mask in stores, but only 44 percent say that they see people in their communities regularly wearing them.
“I was worried about the coronavirus situation in America, though U.Va. promises to take measures to prevent it,” Wada said. “Still, college is a one-time thing and I don’t want to spend another semester online with a 13-hour time difference.”
Rising fourth-year McIntire student Mahima Naik said that she has been overwhelmed ever since the news came out. As an international student from India who is currently still in Charlottesville, her dilemma derives from the fact that the only Indian flight carrier flying repatriation flights was banned recently. The U.S. government has now allowed the Indian flight carrier to fly between July 11 to July 19, but that gives her very little time to make a decision.
“The longer the University takes to get a conclusive response, the harder it is for me to make a decision,” Naik said. “If I make a decision to go back to India, it would be difficult if not impossible for me to travel back to the U.S. if U.Va. goes through with the hybrid model, and I have to be here for in-person classes. On the other hand, if I stay back and later am forced to go back to India, I don’t know how that will work out given that the Indian carrier is no longer permitted to fly. So this dilemma has been incredibly stressful for me.”
On Tuesday, President Jim Ryan and Provost Liz Magill sent an email to members of the international student community confirming that the University is committed to the hybrid model of teaching in the fall and is currently working with other universities to seek a change in the regulations.
“Accordingly, we have asked all our schools to ensure that all of you who plan to be in the United States for your studies will have some amount of in-person classroom experience so that you will be able to remain in the U.S. without jeopardizing your immigration status,” the email read.
The email also clarified that graduate students enrolled in research courses will be considered as having in-person instruction.
Naik, however, said that she’s not very satisfied with the University’s response.
“I get that the University is also under a lot of pressure, but they’re still taking too much time to even respond to us,” Naik said. “President Ryan’s email should’ve come a lot sooner. We definitely appreciate the support from the University but we need to see more action items.”
According to Naik, even with a hybrid model, there are several issues that need to be taken into consideration. Many students are already in their home countries and can’t return to the U.S. In the case that health concerns start rising again and the University chooses to move online completely after classes have begun, international students who are in the U.S. would be forced to travel back home and face further risks.
It’s not only international students who have been struck by the news. Student leaders of the University community have come together to support their peers.
Student Council, along with student leaders from other universities, has drafted a letter to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, demanding that their decision immediately be repealed and to allow international students to remain in the U.S. while taking an online course load.
“These are our roommates, lab partners, best friends and beloved classmates,” the letter reads. “The removal of non-resident students from our country strips away the humanity of our peers and impoverishes the communities that will miss them. There is no substitute for their presence in our country.”
Prior to hearing Ryan’s update, rising third-year Engineering student Alisa Houghton started a petition calling for the University to confirm that the fall semester would be hybrid and take steps ensuring that affected students would be protected from any consequences of the new rule. Although an in-state student herself, Houghton said she thought the policy was outrageous because it disregards the health and safety of international students and may cause financial strain.
“[International students] have every right to an accessible education just like the rest of us, and it should not be limited to outside forces they cannot control,” Houghton said.
Rising fourth-year College student Sasha Duckworth compiled a comprehensive list of resources regarding the policy change, including a policy breakdown, a list of in-person classes and templates for emailing administration or calling representatives. Two of her closest friends at the University were exchange students from France, so she has always been close to the international student community and wanted to take action by creating an accessible guide.
“In advocating for this issue, I’ve found that there is an overemphasis on the economic contributions of international students and scholars,” Duckworth said. “The fact of the matter is, supporting our international students is simply the right thing to do.”
According to the 2018-2019 ISO Annual Report, from 2018-2019 there were a total of 2,968 enrolled international students and OPT at the University, along with 566 visiting scholars and 147 exchange students representing 135 countries.
The University’s International Studies Office will be hosting a Town Hall Friday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. to discuss these issues and address further concerns.
This article has been updated with an additional student interview.