From threat of deportation to travel restrictions, international students at Cornell and across the country face immense uncertainty after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Monday that international students cannot remain in the U.S. if taking a fully online course load.
ICE declared in a news release Monday international students with F-1 and M-1 visas who attend schools that will be entirely online for the upcoming semester face the threat of deportation. The announcement leaves some questions unanswered, as the guidelines on exemptions to the rules and how schools should update their information to ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, remain slightly vague.
But amid the uncertainty and anxieties international students now face, organizations on campus have started petitions and compiled resources to protect international students from the recent order.
The International Students Union promptly sent out a form to gauge student concerns about the executive order and guidelines issued by ICE, and to get feedback on how the Office of Global Learning could improve.
“Personally, I felt very frustrated and a lot of my other international friends felt very angry,” said Zoya Mohsin ’20, president of the International Students Union.
As a student from Kenya, Mohsin described the confusion, frustration and anxiety that buzzed among the international community when the news was released.
“I think that in a weird, twisted way, this has truly made us crystallize what it means to be a union for international students and the international community at Cornell,” Mohsin said.
“I think a lot of international students would like to see more open advocacy for us,” Mohsin said. “Like a lot of times it’s a lot of background work and that work is very important and very meaningful, but I think international students would appreciate knowing Cornell was advocating for us rather than just like learning about it in a very passive way.”
Accounting for 22.55 percent of Cornell’s study body, some international students stayed in the U.S. with family members and friends because of fears over travel restrictions caused by COVID-19. Others returned home shortly after Cornell said it would suspend in-person instruction, but now face many hurdles in trying to return to the U.S. Some countries have closed their borders, prohibiting travel, while in the U.S., President Donald Trump imposed travel restrictions on China, Brazil and Europe.
“All international flights are canceled so there is no way for me to come back,” said a rising senior from India in the College of Engineering, who asked to be anonymous because of legal concerns regarding her visa application. “There’s nothing I can do.”
Other than the physical barriers that inhibit international students from returning to the U.S., there are also health risks that come along with travel — specifically for immunocompromised students who may now have to take classes in-person under ICE’s new order.
Some students feel that they need to quickly return to the U.S., as ICE stated that it would revoke visas from students who are not in the country for more than five months once the emergency provisions end on Aug. 13.
Since Cornell is set to transition to completely online classes after Nov. 24, international students must “notify the agency within 10 days”, or face the possibility of removal from the U.S. Some international students believe that Cornell can help them avoid dealing with this anxiety and uncertainty by holding some in-person classes after Thanksgiving break.
While there could be health risks associated with the move to continue in-person instruction after Thanksgiving break and it may not be well-received by some domestic students, Shivali Halabe ’22 stressed that the ramifications of a switch to all-online classes were too grave for international students.
“We as an organization really want Cornell to be thinking about every single one of its students,” said Halabe, who is a board member of Cornell Students 4 Black Lives. “One thing that we really want to highlight is that domestic students aren’t all of Cornell. Cornell includes domestic and international students and domestic students obviously have more privileges.”
On Instagram, Cornell Students for Black Lives collaborated with ISU to circulate petitions and called for domestic students to phone their representatives, vote and raise awareness, while providing information to students on the effects of the policy.
Even though the Cornell administration sent a message to the Cornell community denouncing the issue, students pointed out that the administration’s response came two days after ICE’s announcement, while other institutions — like Harvard — immediately condemned the order.
“We are actively working with our elected representatives in Washington, D.C., and with our peers and professional associations to change ICE’s stance,” wrote President Martha E. Pollack in an email to the student body, announcing that the University would join an amicus brief filed by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology challenging ICE’s order.
While the rising senior in the engineering college thought Cornell joining Harvard’s and MIT’s lawsuit to be “heartening”, she found Cornell’s responses to policies released in the past couple of months — including Trump’s order banning H-1B visas and certain postdocs — to be inadequate and vague.
“It seemed like they really didn’t understand the gravity of the situation or the issues that international students could face if we were to transition mid semester due to an outbreak,” she said.
As travel restrictions and potential leaves of absence could cause students to lose their visas – hurting their ability to find jobs and internships – international students are also financially and legally burdened by the pandemic and ICE’s unexpected guidelines.
Halabe and the rising senior felt this lack of understanding stemmed from a lack of diversity and inclusion in Cornell administration, which has been recently called out by different organizations and highlighted in petitions, including the “Do Better” campaign.
“Most of their action related to racism and helping the BIPOC community is because of student action. If you don’t put pressure on your university to tell them this is what you want. It’s not going to happen,” said Halabe. “I think that’s a pretty upsetting situation.”
Halabe added that Cornell can do a better job in encouraging students to educate themselves about their international peers, primarily by providing more public information and taking more concrete actions.
“That’s stuff we should all be aware of,” Halabe said. “You should be aware of the people you go to school with. It just makes you a more understanding individual.”
Amid the mounting frustrations and concerns that afflict international students, the rising senior expressed regrets about attending a school in the U.S. due to feeling the constant threat of deportation and lack of promising job prospects under the Trump administration. She said she advised her sibling to avoid applying to schools in the U.S.
“It’s made worse by the fact you can’t do anything. I can’t go out in the streets and protest because if you’re a noncitizen and you protest, you get deported by ICE. I can’t vote because I’m not a citizen,” she said. “I can’t do anything.”
While Halabe wants institutions to continue advocating for international students, she hopes the root issues –xenophobia and racism – are dismantled across the nation in the future.
“They’re coming to our country offering everything they have,” Halabe said. “Their experiences, their knowledge, their hard work and trying to make our homes a better place … that should be something to be appreciated and celebrated, not something driven away.”