Netra Mittal came to UB to escape India’s male-dominated society and learn to think on her own, but last week’s federal government “flip-flop” on visa status for international students has left her wondering if the U.S. is the right place for her.
She loves her life at UB and feels invigorated by her freedom and the explosion of ideas and people she encounters, but the junior economics and mathematics major is also tired of feeling threatened and uneasy about being a foreigner.
“The past week I’ve realized how vulnerable my status is, it can be revoked anytime because at least under this administration, I know I’m not welcome in this country.”
For a week, UB’s close to 7,000 international students and the administrators who supervise them hurried to understand and respond to a July 6 Trump administration directive to deport or deny entry to international students at U.S. colleges and universities offering virtual instruction only this fall.
The move — believed to be a push to force universities to open in the fall — received immediate, united backlash. On July 8, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit to block the policy. Eventually, more than 200 universities and 17 states joined the suit. On July 13, SUNY filed its own lawsuit.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration withdrew the directive.
But still, many UB international students feel unnerved and wonder what the U.S. government will do next. Some feel betrayed by a country that worked hard to recruit them and made them believe in their American future.
“The fact that the administration can put out a policy like this in the future is still very worrying,” said Archana Mohan, a senior business administration major from India.
Mohan says she and her friends panicked when they heard about the original policy, but then felt relieved to see the outpouring of support from universities.
“I am glad the colleges came together to provide safety to the international students during these hard times.”
UB routinely ranks in the top 25 universities in the country for the number of foreign students it admits. The largest number come from India, China, South Korea, Canada, Iran and Taiwan; all pay $14,000 per semester, rather than the $5,000 domestic students pay.
UB student Rohit Khemlani worked last week with the NY attorney general and SUNY Senior Vice Chancellor and Provost Tod A. Laursen to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Khemlani, a senior accounting major from Japan, says even if the policy has been revoked now, the government could place restrictions again in the future. He says “one DHS senior official said that they will still implement something else. So there's still this uncertainty in my mind.”
Khemlani also says international students come to the U.S. with many dreams and pay significantly higher tuition than domestic students. He says at the very least they shouldn’t be terrified of being kicked out during a pandemic.
“Without international students you know, the tuition prices for domestic students will be quite high,” he says.
According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, international students contributed about $41 billion to the U.S. economy last year.
Interim Vice Provost for International Education, John Wood says the number of new international students in the U.S. has been declining over the past three years and these policies could make it worse.
“Prospective students may decide the risk is not worth it and pursue their higher education in another country. That would be a great loss to the U.S.,” Wood said. “At UB we are very mindful of all the non-economic contributions our international students make to the university—to our education, research and engagement missions.”
Some feel the criticisms and the swift response of the universities could also be due to the wealth contributed by international students.
“I recognize the reason this ICE policy gained so much traction is because it affected the profits of wealthy college institutions and because it removed wealthy people from the country,” Mittal said. “I hope the removal of this decision, while a momentary relief, convinced people that there is yet a lot left to achieve, i.e the abolishment of ICE.”
Following the announcement of the policy, many took to social media to express outrage and to create and sign petitions to revoke it. A petition calling New York, New Jersey and Connecticut governors to create a system to allow international students to stay in the U.S., started by UB alum, Leslie Veloz received over 7,000 signatures.
“With everything going on in the country and amidst a global pandemic, students seeking an education should not fear deportation,” she wrote.
But many students have simply had enough. They are tired of America’s increasingly restrictive policies and are starting to consider taking their talent and tuition to countries with friendlier immigration procedures.
“I know my worth and the contribution I could make to whomever I’ll choose to work with,” said Pia Ngyeun,* a senior business administration major from Vietnam. “I would rather be somewhere I’d feel welcomed. This is not to disregard the people that I've met in the U.S. who’ve been a huge amount of support for me.”
Some students want to continue their college careers in the U.S. because of its resources.
Brandon Kah Ho Lau, a senior civil engineering major from Malaysia, says he “prefers the education system” in the U.S. “It’s due to the good resources and research opportunities available here.”
UB International Student Services representatives sent emails explaining the situation to international students and advised them to register for at least one in-person or hybrid class to maintain their visa status. But even classes that start in-person, may have to revert to online if — as many experts expect— the pandemic worsens in the fall and winter.
If that happens, Assistant Vice Provost and Director of International Student Services Katie Tudini said in an email, international students would have had to leave the country in order to comply with U.S. law. But N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo could make the decision to move all classes online at any point in the semester.
Both students and the administration remain concerned about the scenario in which UB has to go online mid-semester due to a potential second wave of COVID-19 cases. They are worried about what would happen if the campus closed and they couldn't return home. It’s “the biggest concern of them all,” said Mohan.
Many international students who stayed in the U.S. this summer told The Spectrum they were stressed about the logistics of how to get home as many borders have restrictions against those traveling from the U.S. and there is limited flight availability. The stress was taxing on them and their mental health.
“It’s worsening underlying issues of anxiety and making my days much more difficult to deal with,” said Mohan
UB’s current instruction plan for the fall states that all classes will be online after Thanksgiving and students say after the ICE policy was announced, there were many uncertainties regarding their visa status post Thanksgiving break.
Sahana Vishwanathan, a junior psychology major from Oman says even if schools were open, she would likely not be able to stay in the U.S. past the end of November since UB has announced on-campus classes will not resume after Thanksgiving, but will move online. “I’m personally worried about what if after Thanksgiving, like UB said, everything goes online,” Vishwanathan said. “All international students are asked to leave the country, and the flights are expensive, it would be really crowded and you’d be putting yourself in danger.”
Viswanathan also says she was “unhappy” with UB’s response and wants more “clarity,” from administrators. She says all they have been doing is paraphrasing what was on the ICE website.
“[UB’s response] was very vague, like we’ll do whatever we can to help you during these challenging times,” she said. “But the question is how are you going to do that, what steps and measures are you going to take to protect your international students.”
After the policy was announced, Tudini sympathized with students and said UB was waiting for more information from the federal government. She said ISS worked with the Office of the Registrar and academic departments to ensure there are enough in-person classes available for international students.
Still, students were skeptical about attending in-person courses.
Nguyen* says the policy was “forcing” international students to either take in-person classes or go home, and both disregard their health and safety.
“This puts a huge financial, emotional stress as well as life-or-death related concerns on all students being affected by ICE and their policy,” Ngyuen said. “Both of these options put me and other international students at huge risk of contracting the virus regardless of what we choose.”
In an email sent on July 8th, ISS recommended international students apply for a leave of absence if they don’t want to enroll in classes for the fall. According to the ISS website, leaving the country would mean forfeiting visa status. And if students don’t return within 5-months, it could restart the two semester requirement to receive the Optional Practical Training visa, which is a one year full-time work permit international students receive upon graduation.
Whether international students took a leave of absence or enrolled in a fully online course load, they feared not being able to return to the U.S. within the five-month period due to travel restrictions. Others were unsure if they could go back to their home countries because many borders are still closed. From the time the ICE policy was announced to its cancellation, students tussled with making decisions as none of them offered a favorable outcome.
For Danial Ahmadi*, a senior business administration major from Iran, leaving the U.S. meant not being able to return for a “very long time.” He came to the U.S. right before President Trump’s 2019 “travel ban,” which includes Iran. Ahmadi says he’s “committed” to not seeing his family for three years due to the travel and immigration restrictions, as he was hoping to stay in the U.S. for his master’s degree.
“But based on ICE’s decision and my situation I’m not sure when I’ll be able to ever return,” Ahmadi said
Mohan says her home country has placed many travel restrictions. She says due to the pandemic, it’s difficult to travel internationally and the new regulations “add on” to the stress she faces as an international student.
“Because of India’s restriction on traveling to the country, I cannot just pack up and go home when asked,” Mohan said. “The threat of deportation and having to leave the country at a moment’s notice will constantly be there and would definitely have negative impacts on my academics.”
Vishwanathan sees the policies as a direct attack on immigrants and minorities by the U.S. government.
“We’re here legally, we’re studying legally and they still want to throw us out. So, it just goes to show that it’s not because you’re here legally or illegally, they just don’t want minorities,” Vishwanathan said.
*Students names have been changed because they fear retaliation
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated "the number of international students in the U.S. has been declining over the past three years and these policies could make it worse." It has been changed to "the number of new international students in the U.S. has been declining over the past three years and these policies could make it worse," to specify that the number of international students already in the U.S. has not declined, but rather the total number of international students planning on coming to the U.S. has.
Vindhya Burugupalli is the senior engagement editor and cane be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @vindhyab_
Vindhya Burugupalli is the engagement editor for The Spectrum. She loves traveling and documenting her experiences through mp4s and jpegs. In her free time, she can be found exploring cute coffee shops and food spots.