As US rescinds plan to change visa policy, a look at what the risk of deportation meant

14 July 2020
ROBYN BECK / AFP / Getty Images
ROBYN BECK / AFP / Getty Images

“I had a very flowery perception of college before coming in,” Rajit Rajpal, a 19-year-old data-science student at the University of California, Berkeley, told me on 7 July. Rajpal moved to the United States a year ago, becoming the first member of his family to travel abroad for college. In March this year, when the novel coronavirus cases began to surge in the United States, the 19-year-old Indian national decided to go back home to his parents in Indonesia but could not travel as the country had shut its borders. He vacated his university dorm in April due to a financial crisis at home, he told me. For the last four months, he has been moving from place to place with his two suitcases in tow, mostly couch-surfing with his friends. Now, he is faced with a new uncertainty. Rajpal risks deportation if his university chooses to conduct only online classes for the fall semester—which typically begins in late August and ends in December—according to a new policy laid out by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

On 6 July, ICE announced that if F-1 and M-1 visa holders are enrolled only in online classes for the fall semester, they will have to go back to their home countries or face deportation. In the United States, F-1 and M-1 visas are given to foreign students who are enrolled in academic and vocational programmes. ICE wrote in its press release that students currently living in the country “must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status.” Further, the press release mentioned that students enrolled in schools or programs that are fully online for the fall semester will not be issued visas or allowed to enter the country. 

“This latest ban on students is another addition to a long list of racist, anti-immigrant policies which have come to define this administration,” Iman Boukadoum, an immigration attorney based in Washington DC, said. There were around one million foreign students in the United States in 2019, according to the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit that promotes international education. The new policy move could affect tens of thousands of these students and those who were aspiring to study in the country. [Update: Hours after this story was published, the administration rescinded the policy.] 

As a daughter of an immigrant, Heba Gowayed, an assistant professor of Sociology at Boston University, considered ICE’s decision as a personal attack. In the 1980s, “my father came here on a visa as a PhD student and we came with him,” she said. “The decision to send him home would have been the end of our American dream.” 

“This order essentially created a border inside my classroom,” she said. “It created an arbitrary distinction between a foreign and domestic student, where domestic students can decide how they want to learn, how to protect themselves and their families and foreign students wouldn’t be afforded the same opportunities.” If they are forced to go back, some students may lack quality internet or the ability to access course materials due to government censorship or have an environment at home that might not be conducive to learning, she explained. Her job as an educator is to create a space in her classroom where “people’s worth is not tied to their race or their passport, or to their nation of origin.” 

Zainab Sultan is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based between New Jersey and India.

Keywords: COVID-19 education
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