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North Texas International Students Face Uncertainty Following ICE Rule On Student Visas

The University of North Texas Health Science Center

A new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement rule says international students can’t remain in the country if they’re enrolled in online courses only. The policy comes at a time when many schools are moving their curriculum online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The new rule is forcing international students to make a tough decision: attend class with the risk of getting sick or be deported. At the same time, travel restrictions because of COVID-19 can make it dangerous or difficult to return home.

Akshat Dhati’s from India. He’s pursuing a masters degree in supply chain management at the University of Texas at Dallas. He said he’s scared to return to classes as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Texas keep climbing.

“It makes no sense. I don't think it's even, you know, logical to force students, not only international students, but anyone to come to the university at this time,” Dhati said. 

Edgardo Benedetti, a University of North Texas music student, is from Peru. He doesn't have a choice in the matter because he can't go home.

"There are a lot of countries that are closed. For example, Peru. Peru is closed. We don't have international flights allowed in,” he said. 

Juan Gonzalez is the dean of graduate students and oversees international student services at UTD, which has the largest international student population in Texas. His office recently held an open forum so students could ask questions and talk about the new rule.

“Remember that these students are far away from the countries and their own families back home are dealing with the same thing that we were dealing with here, with COVID and all the different restrictions,” Gonzalez said. “You know, it's tough, it's tough to be a student far away from home.”

He said the impact international students have on their surrounding communities cannot be overstated both culturally and economically. They pay more in tuition and fees than domestic students.

During the 2018-2019 school year, international students contributed upwards of $2.2 billion to the state’s economy and $210 million to UTD alone.

Some universities are moving completely online this fall. That means international students enrolled in those schools will have to transfer to a different university if they want to stay in the U.S. 

Gonzalez said that’s just not a feasible option for some, especially considering the start of the semester is less than two months away.

“For an international student to transfer from one university to the other to another, and still maintain their status, it's very difficult with this short period of time,” he said. “It's almost impossible to do that.”

Gonzalez said UTD’s international students shouldn’t have a problem fitting an in-person or hybrid class into their scheduleles. The challenge is that students don’t know which classes in the catalog will be offered through which modality of teaching yet.

Universities will also have to certify to the government’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program by August 4 that their courses won’t be entirely online.

Universities are also wrestling with how to keep students safe amid coronavirus concerns.

Dhati said it's especially worrisome for many international students like him who rely on public transit to get to and from class. He’s not super comfortable doing that in the middle of a pandemic.

“I'm pretty sure that they can't, you know, clean and sanitize all the buses so soon and so properly that they’ll be ready for taking 50, 60, 100 students at a time or in 30 minutes,” he said. “I'm pretty sure it won't be that safe.”

But Gonzalez said UTD is taking steps to make sure students that do have to show up on campus have a clean and safe learning environment.

Earlier this week, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the Trump administration over the new rule arguing it puts colleges in a tough position: either they go forward with plans to move most if not all of their courses online or provide in-person education despite a grave public health risk.

Those legal proceedings are ongoing and Dhati said he’s nervous.

“We're not angry. We're very scared. Cause we can't do anything. It's not in our hands." 

For the moment, he and countless other international students are in limbo. They don’t know whether they’ll be studying in the U.S. or be forced to return home.

Rebekah Morr is KERA's All Things Considered newscaster and producer. She came to KERA from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a news assistant at Weekend All Things Considered.