Nefeli Forni Zervoudaki panicked when ICE announced earlier this month that international students with an exclusively online course load – which, with Covid-19 canceling most in-person classes for autumn semester, constitutes a majority – had to leave the United States. A Greek student who has family in Belgium and Uruguay, Zervoudaki said she didn’t know where she could go.
“I couldn’t sleep that night, because I couldn’t wrap my head around what it entailed,” says 29-year old Zervoudaki, who studies film and comparative literature at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “I’d have to go back to Brussels [in Belgium], a country I haven’t lived in since I was 17 years old.”
Zervoudaki lives in Amherst with her partner and stepson, who are American citizens. “My stepson kept asking why he can’t come with me,” she said. “And he’s having issues sleeping because he’s anxious about the situation, and it’s just very difficult right now because of the uncertainty.”
Zervoudaki is just one of more than a million international students enrolled in American universities, who – up until recently – were told by ICE they had to leave the country for taking exclusively online classes. The Trump administration rescinded its decision on Tuesday, but uncertainty and fear still persist among international students pursuing their education in the US, and there are reports the US government intends to bar incoming foreign students, who will start school in the fall.
“It feels pretty undignified,” says Maham, a Pakistani student in Massachusetts, who declined to share her last name. “[For the Trump administration], it’s not like you were invited to come here, it’s like you somehow legally came here just to snatch away the resources, and now you’re being pushed out.”
With the global outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration restricted temporary work visas and extended a ban on immigrants seeking permanent residency. The decision to deport foreign students with an online curriculum was just the latest in what critics are saying is the administration using the pandemic to discriminate against immigrants.
“I was supposed to do an internship in the US, which didn’t happen because of the pandemic,” Anchita Dasgupta, 20, a student at Brown, who returned to her hometown of Kolkata in India after the Covid-19 outbreak, said. “In a lot of ways, this has been hard. But on top of everything with the ICE decision, things just got worse.”
The plight of immigrant students in the pandemic
Ashveta Budhrani, 26, a student at Parsons School of Design, moved to California from New York City after being diagnosed with a kidney issue. She now lives at a friend’s residence in Santa Clara, and had to convert a walk-in closet into an office to finish her thesis.
“We are lonely in our apartments, we don’t have anyone to talk to, and we are always reassuring our parents, ‘We’re fine and we got this’,” Budhrani said. “I am happy [the decision] got revoked but it further confirms how vulnerable we are. We as immigrants are not welcome, even if we follow all the rules set by this government.”
Ibrahim Kamara, 21, a computer science student from Côte d’Ivoire, will start his studies at La Salle University in Pennsylvania in the fall. Kamara felt “fantastic” at the news of the ban being lifted, but considered going to Canada when ICE initially announced the decision.
“I just started thinking about, what if I have to leave the country? What are my choices? Am I going back home or finding another university?” he said.
Minahil Mehdi, a theology student at Harvard, added that her respect for the US as a place of “diversity” has been compromised.
“I think what makes the US a worthwhile place is its diversity, openness and inclusion,” Mehdi said. “Because I think that is being challenged, and I feel not great that a space we thought was free and equal is not very free and equal.”
Students mobilise for immigration rights
Harvard, M.I.T. and other universities sued the Trump administration, alleging that the government was trying to forcefully re-open universities and put students at risk for getting infected by the coronavirus. A Democrat-led lawsuit, which was joined by the attorney generals of several states, challenged the government, citing that the law would uproot international students and cause “irreparable harm” to public health if it were implemented.
In addition to the lawsuits brought forth by the institutions against ICE, students are organising grassroots efforts to support international students and exert pressure on their universities.
“I spent a significant part of last week organising with international students at Brown,” Dasgupta said. “We sent out a list of demands to the administration, hoping that they’d sit down and have some kind of dialogue with us on how to develop policies that can make sure students feel safe.”
Betty Mulugeta, 21, is a recent graduate of La Salle university, who organised efforts for justice after Kaleb Belay, an immigrant student from Ethiopia, was shot by Philadelphia police in 2019. Mulugeta petitioned her school to create an in-person course for international students before the ban was lifted, and is also organising for her school to divest from local police.
“We’re trying to tell our school, hey, here are all these schools that are trying to protect their international students,” Mulugeta said. “It’s your turn.”
Hilena Gebru, 21, a member of an organization at Temple University for East African students, added that many of her friends who are international students don’t even have internet.
“Many international students from Ethiopia don’t have stable access to internet or wifi,” she said. “The government has cut off internet access throughout the country. Can you imagine that occurring during your finals?”
International students on F‑1 visas are permitted to work for a year in the US after finishing their studies, which has often led to permanent residency in America. Raya Steier, a lawyer who is originally from India, met the man who would become her husband when she was a student. She wonders if she would have been able to build a life in the United States were she a student today.
“I was very disturbed because if it wasn’t for my F‑1 visa, I wouldn’t be here,” Steier said. “If arbitrary decisions were made when I was in school, I would have been deported long ago.”