How Will the New ICE Rule Affect International Students?

What are its educational and socio-emotional effects beyond the stress of COVID?

Posted Jul 13, 2020

A few days ago, US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that for the 2020-2021 academic year, if universities go completely online in order to quell the spread of coronavirus, international students on F-1 (academic) and M-1 (vocational) visas will be required to leave the country or reduce their course load.

This decision has sparked an outcry among higher education professionals, current, former, and prospective international students, and others.  Over 200 universities, as well as several states and cities, have filed suit against the Trump administration, and an initial hearing is scheduled for tomorrow.  

Concerns over this decision are partly economic, both for the universities themselves and for the communities they are based in, but they are also largely centered on both international students’ ability to finish their education and their personal well-being.  Having taught many international students, I am aware of some of the difficulties they would face if their education were interrupted by deportation.  However, for a more personal look into how this decision would affect international students beyond financial considerations, I talked with my friend, Dr. Lyndal Khaw.

Dr. Khaw is originally from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She earned her PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2010 and is currently an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Family Science and Human Development at Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ. In 2001, she came to the U.S. to complete her undergraduate degree and today, is a permanent resident of the U.S. In this interview, she will share her perspective as a former international student and a professor who has taught both international and American students during COVID.

Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

First, this decision affects students on an F-1 or M-1 visa.  Could you explain what is involved in getting these visas?

As I understand it, the process of obtaining an F-1 visa now is not so different from what I encountered 19 years ago. Like most students, I received my letter of admission sometime in January of 2001 and a Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) Form called I-20. With the admission letter and the I-20, students then make an appointment with the closest U.S. embassy and show up on the day and time of the appointment for an interview.

In my case, I had to wait for almost a month before my interview. In addition to the processing fee (currently $160), international students must include financial documents proving self-sufficiency, as F-1 visa holders are not permitted to work off-campus or in an area unrelated to their field. International students cannot work in restaurants or retail stores, which often employ college students.

In my case, my father and uncle co-signed a letter and provided financial records to demonstrate our ability to afford the cost of tuition, room, and board for four years. In June 2001, I received confirmation that my visa was ready. It takes months to get an F-1 visa; incoming international students for Fall 2020 likewise already have these wheels in motion. Additionally, they have already spent thousands of dollars on other costs like flight tickets, taking the TOEFL (an English proficiency exam), and housing deposits.

It is a big investment of time and resources for an international student to come to the US.  Once they arrive, what are some of the challenges they encounter in a traditional face to face academic setting?

There are almost too many to mention, but I think it depends on what an international student has been exposed to in their home country. Navigating the cultural and social landscape of the American education system is a big one. Even though English was my first language spoken at home, it was still a culture shock to read and write in American English instead of British English or to find concepts learned in my native tongue expressed differently here. Additionally, the American college system involves a higher degree of collaborative knowledge-building, where group work and participation account for how well you do in class. This model of education is not practiced worldwide and may come as a shock initially to international students.

Working in an unfamiliar educational environment is hard, even when there’s not upheaval due to a pandemic!  When we went online, many of my American students struggled because they had a chaotic environment at home, had no good place to study, were expected to care for family members, or work.  I suspect the same will be true for many international students if they are forced to go home.  However, I foresee other challenges for them as well, particularly having to work under massive time zone differences and making even further adjustments to their educational environment.  What problems do you think will uniquely affect international students' success if they have to leave the country when their program goes online?

Most students cited tech accessibility issues and conflicts in balancing life and school as their greatest barriers for them to learning online. Importantly though, these barriers may have been magnified by their inability to travel home due to air travel restrictions and lack of access to their support systems due to the quarantine.

I think you’re right about the challenges with the time zones. Imagine a student having to join a Zoom lecture at 3 am in Malaysia (3 pm EST)! This in itself already creates inequities in international students succeeding academically, even if they do have access to reliable Internet and technology. Being forced to return to their home countries to complete their education online can impact international students’ ability to connect with their peers and participate fully in collaborative discussions or group work.

Edward Jenner / Pexels
Source: Edward Jenner / Pexels

The cultural experience of learning and interacting with their peers of various sociocultural backgrounds within an American educational context is not easily replicable online, especially when one is physically located thousands of miles away. At the same time, international students should not have to enroll in in-person courses just to meet visa requirements during COVID times and potentially risk their health and safety.

Another more unique outcome is a sense of discontent an international student may feel about being forced to make a decision between staying in the country and risk getting COVID by attending in-person classes, or leave. We shouldn’t require students to choose between their education and their safety; these should not be mutually exclusive. 

Many of my students reported mental health difficulties after we moved online due to anxiety and lack of social support.  Do you think this would be exacerbated for international students, who would also be dealing with deportation?

Most definitely. We know this pandemic and mandated physical distancing have a toll on mental health. For international persons, given the lack of social support plus exposure to the U.S. administration’s increasingly anti-immigrant rhetoric that makes them feel that they are not welcome here, the mental toll is simply greater.   

If their academic performance suffers when they have to leave the country, will this affect their ability to get visas in the future?

To maintain an F-1 visa status, international students need to take a full load of classes and maintain a certain GPA. If they drop or fail a course, just like any other student, it likely adds more time to matriculation, which may necessitate a visa extension. If an international student needs to transfer schools, they will need to withdraw from their program and obtain a new I-20 form before they are able to start their new program at a new college. Acceptance at their new institution may very well depend on their academic performance. I worry too that once they leave the U.S., they may have a harder time coming back to complete their education due to stricter travel regulations.

How might this rule affect their families economically or otherwise?

Regardless of where they are, international students are already paying out-of-state tuition costs. The cost of having to relocate for just a semester or two can be immensely huge, especially when you factor in flight tickets, moving expenses, potential storage expenses, and costs to gain access to reliable technology in their home countries.

There’s opportunity cost as well; that is, when international students are forced to leave the U.S., they may never return, possibly affecting their financial and economic futures. Similarly, we could have a potential “brain drain” situation in the U.S., when many talented and highly trained young minds leave to work, invest, innovate, and succeed elsewhere, subsequently contributing to other countries’ economic and social growths instead.