In the middle of a pandemic, international college students have needed more support and sympathy ever before, especially as many have been stranded in Madison for months. But in the United States the Trump administration added to their stress and anxiety by issuing an order to strip students of their US visas and deport them if their courses go entirely online.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, roughly one million international students currently enrolled in the U.S. must attend at least one in-person class this fall or be denied visas and face deportation. This announcement sent shockwaves through the international students residing in the United States. The order especially affected international students who have signed leases, cannot travel back home, have moved to this country recently with their families and were planning to stay here for years.
Many international students say it is an ill informed decision and has been made without consulting any university or organization, and reflect a lack of understanding in the administration that different students are in different situations and are facing different circumstances. For instance, some graduate students take online classes and teach in person, some work in labs with faculty members while taking online classes, and many countries shut down their flights and it is also risky to travel to some places.
“I moved here in Eagle Heights last year with my wife and three children,” said Claudio Meza Valle, a graduate student from Chile. Eagle Heights is UW-Madison’s graduate student housing complex. “After hearing this news my anxiety went up and I wanted to know what is going to happen to my status here. Should I stay, should I go back, I have my whole family here settled with an expectation to stay for years,” he said. Meza Valle is pursuing his Ph.D. from UW-Madison which, on average, takes five years to complete and he never thought of moving back until he completes his education — least of all during a pandemic. He is not alone as many of the students have shared the same level of anger and frustration and feel that the decision caught them an utter surprise.
According to UW-Madison’s website, more than 4,000 international students from more than 130 countries choose to study at the UW–Madison. International students contributed nearly $41 billion to the U.S. economy last year.
Tran Diem Trang, an international student, said she felt stressed and discriminated against by the new policy for international students.
“We are suffering enough during the pandemic. For example, my family has been segregated because my husband planned to visit my daughter and I in the summer but we couldn’t meet because we are in different countries. I feel very unwelcome and angry,” Tran said. Tran said some of her classes will be in-person and UW-Madison’s International Student Services (ISS) said they would check carefully so that every single international student enrolls at least one in-person course.
Many international students contacted their department and International Student Services to get information to know what is going to happen to their legal status here.
As a former international student and having many international student friends and acquaintances, my social media feed was flooded with the posts of anger over the order. Some students opted not to be interviewed or wanted to remain anonymous because they don’t feel comfortable to say anything as international students.
“(The) current order makes people risk their safety … I am worried if this will be used against massive hatred toward international students if public health is at risk by holding in-person classes,” said a student on the condition of anonymity. She said she is afraid the university will feel pressured to hold unsafe in-person classes, and American students will blame international students. “Now whose fault is this having the crisis in the fall semester? This is the worst case scenario I am imagining,” she said.
Another student said the international student community that brings in billions of dollars in revenue was being used as a scapegoat by the current administration to forward its capitalist, anti-intellectual, and anti-science stance. Second, though the F1 is a non-immigrant visa, this decision has roots in the administration’s regressive anti-immigrant policies and the way they dehumanize and mistreat outsiders.
“International students like me will always be scared to challenge such policies and administrative decisions because we are continually pushed onto the margins, treated as outsiders, and silenced with ‘deportation’ threats,” she said.
She said she is glad the American universities are striving to challenge this policy that is designed to compel students like her to either abandon research and go back to their home countries or to expose their professors and students to the risks of Covid-19 by conducting and attending in-person classes.
The student said going back to her country is only going to worsen the situation.
“Traveling right now means I am putting myself at the risk of contracting this virus. This policy refuses to grant international students their right to live safely in the time of a global pandemic,” she said.
Another graduate student, who asked to be referred to as ZD, said some of the students may not have enough mental preparation for this sudden change, and more people who care about higher education should support the one million international students in this country.
“I feel unwelcome in this country. It is unfair that we study and work hard, and most of us pay so much money in tuition but we are still treated like this,” ZD said.
He said he can take his class online for safety, but now he must make a tough choice between following important public health guidelines and holding in-person instruction so he won’t be deported.
ZD said he is happy with how UW-Madison is handling the situation. UW-Madison held an information session to answer questions from the international students and showed efforts faculty has made. “I really appreciate it. I am super proud to be part of the Badger community,” he said.
UW-Madison is not among the universities that have sued the Trump administration over this policy However, UW-Madison Chancellor Becky Blank told PBS News Hour it is an unwise and terribly disrupted policy. Asked about joining other universities to sue the administration, Blank said, “We are looking at our legal options that whether it makes sense to join or not because as a state university we have certain constraints on that, but issued a very strong statement in opposition of this regulation.”
According to a statement issued by UW-Madison, the university is urging the federal government to stay or amend this plan through direct contact with Wisconsin’s Congressional Delegation and our leadership role in organizations such as the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the Association of American Universities (AAU). UW–Madison plans to offer a hybrid model of instruction that they believe would allow international students to enroll in face-to-face classes and remain in the United States while continuing their studies.