The Trump administration’s abrupt changes to foreign student visa rules have upended the plans of more than a million international students currently enrolled in institutions across the United States, with many fearing for their future.
The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Monday announced that it would strip the visa of foreign students whose entire courses have moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic, with critics calling the move “xenophobic” and part of President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policy.
The directive by ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program is likely to hit hundreds of thousands of students, particularly from Asian countries, hard, as they will have to leave the US or face deportation.
Many of them might face the prospect of distance learning from the other side of the world, where time zones, unreliable internet connections, and internet bans would make completing their degree programmes difficult – if not impossible.
According to research conducted by ICE, nearly 80 percent of all international students in the US are from Asia, with China and India accounting for nearly half of them.
‘Xenophobic’ and ‘anti-immigration’
Ifat Gazia, a PhD student from Indian-administered Kashmir, said: “If ICE sends me and other Kashmiri students back, we would be left with no remote learning option. I will have to take a leave from my university and sit back home until this order is revoked.”
India imposed one of the longest internet blockades in Kashmir in August last year when the disputed Muslim-majority regionwas stripped of its special status. The internet blockade was lifted in January this year, but mobile internet, which many people there rely on, has been limited to 2G speeds.
A Chinese student currently studying at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) said attending online classes will be difficult if he goes back to his home country. Many websites, including Google and Facebook, that US universities use to communicate with students, are blocked in China.
To get around the issue, he will have to use a virtual private network (VPN) to access search engines such as Google and other websites. “Using a VPN slows the internet speed, and sometimes the connection breaks down,” he told Al Jazeera wishing not to be named.The ICE order has also taken away the flexibility that international students had while navigating academic life amid the pandemic. Veeraj Jindal, a student at Dartmouth College, said, he may have to drop this semester.
“There is so much uncertainty about what to do. Unless commercial flights start from India to US, I may not be able to go back to join college on time,” the 19-year-old said.
Jindal said the policy is forcing him to choose between facing a health risk and losing his visa. “Forcing students to go back on campus will create health implications,” Jindal said over the phone from India’s capital, New Delhi.
Another Indian student pursuing a law degree at a university in New York, who also did not wish to be named, said the order has upended his career plans, and could leave him with unpaid debts of more than $150,000.
He fears he will have to let go of a job offer that he has received. “If I go back and lose my F-1 [student] visa then I will have to restart my career in India with a huge debt,” he added