Shocked and confused: Indian students react to US decision on foreign students' visa
In light of the new announcement, non-immigrant students have a lot to consider. However, clarity on when they can return to the USA and partial refund of fees remain common areas of concern.
The tension in the air, on both ends of the video call, is palpable. Pranathi Krishna Sangani, a 23-year-old pursuing her Masters in Washington D.C has just finished a conversation with her parents. She has managed to assure them that things are under control, but both sides know that this is far from true.
“It’s unfair and disappointing,” says Pranathi, echoing the thoughts of thousands of Indian students in the USA, currently. The decision by the United States government to withdraw visas from foreign students whose classes have moved online completely has been met with emotions ranging from shock to disgust.
The rules are clear. According to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), if you are a foreign student in the country who is attending only online classes, you will be deported unless you transfer to an institution with in-person tuition.
The ICE statement specifies that students who are in the US on F-1 and M-1 visas fall under the ambit of the decision.
The ruling in question, as per the BBC, applies to these specific types of visas issued for academic study, 373,000 of which were granted last year alone. Moreover, in 2018-2019, the country had over one million international students in graduate and undergraduate programmes. The number translates to nearly 5.5% of the country’s total student community, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). Of this, Indians contribute to 26%, second only to the Chinese at 48%.
Schools should update their information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) within 10 days of the change if they begin the fall semester with in-person classes but are later required to switch to only online classes, or a non-immigrant student changes their course selections, and as a result, ends up taking an entirely online course load. Non-immigrant students within the United States are not permitted to take a full course of study through online classes. If students find themselves in this situation, they must leave the country or take alternative steps to maintain their non-immigrant status such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave. - excerpts from the ICE statement
Terming the move as “senseless, cruel, and xenophobic”, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren said: “Kicking international students out of the US during a global pandemic because their colleges are moving classes online for physical distancing hurts students."
Kicking international students out of the US during a global pandemic because their colleges are moving classes online for physical distancing hurts students. It’s senseless, cruel, and xenophobic. @ICEgov and @DHSgov must drop this policy immediately. https://t.co/MHYduGA1Pk
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) July 7, 2020
The president of Harvard University, Larry Bacow, was reported to have described the move as a “blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem”. He said that the decision gave international students not many options other than the obvious ones of leaving the country or transferring schools.
It may also be noted that the government decision was announced on the same day that Harvard declared that all its course instruction would be delivered online in the new academic year. This would also include classes for the limited number of students allowed to live on campus.
Concerns of the affected
The move is callous, not just because of its xenophobic undertones but also due to how ill-timed it is. By suggesting students transfer to other colleges, the powers that be expose how little they understand of the rigorous admission procedures that students have to go through to gain entry into the USA. It shows a lack of disconnect between policymakers and the parties being affected.
Students in India spend years - and a considerable amount of money - training for Graduate Record Examinations and the English proficiency exams that are prerequisite to obtaining a seat in US universities. A majority of students chart out their higher education plans in the US with a clear intention of pursuing their careers in the country. Universities are then painstakingly chosen based on the courses and amenities that they provide; which students feel will help them at their workplace subsequently.
It is as part of this larger plan that many have taken up student loans that range from Rs 25 lakh to Rs 80 lakh. Several students say that for the more well-known universities, the cost of education for four years may even go up to a crore.
But what the latest decision does is throw a wrench into these very plans, with no long-term solution in sight.
Pranathi, a student of George Mason University in Washington, says: “I just can't seem to wrap my head around this decision. The reason many colleges chose to take the Fall 2020 semester online was to keep all members of the ecosystem safe (by not being exposed by the virus). Now, for the government to do a quick U-turn is unfair, to say the least."
“This will go on to affect my grades. The change in time zones and the difference in infrastructure at home and sheer anticipation of what’s next or when I can get back will take a toll on my performance,” she adds.
Echoing her sentiments is Shirinithi Thirupathi from Singapore, who says that by putting an ocean between the students and the university, officials are preventing many from enjoying all the benefits of university education.
“Isn't the very purpose of coming here defeated?” asks Amrita Varshini from Chennai. “We came here for global exposure. Now that has gone out the window.”
The fee inconsistency
While the government has discussed how and why students must return to their countries, not a lot has been said about the reimbursement of the fees for facilities that are not being availed.
The very same students that the US wishes to ‘deport’ amid a pandemic also contributed $45 billion to the country's economy in 2018-19, according to the US Department of Commerce.
A large chunk of the fee is collected for out-of-classroom facilities, such as athletic fees, and cafeteria fees. And while the amount, per se, may remain a bone of contention between students and universities, the general belief is that most universities are justified in their fee collection.
However, with universities going completely online, there has been no mention of this portion of the fee. Will it be refunded? Will it be removed from the fee that students need to pay next semester? These are questions that students have, but no one seems to have an answer.
Rashi Varshney from Chattisgarh, who is pursuing her Masters says: “Instead of a reimbursement, due to the new hybrid model (a combination of online and offline courses) our fee was increased.”
Harshad Vatsa from Mumbai, another Masters student, says that it is only logical that they waive these fees since the students are not availing any on-campus facilities.
However, students are quick to add that some universities also contributed to COVID-19 relief funds to ease the financial strain and hope that it extends to the next semester as well.
Sudhanshu Kaushik, executive director of the North American Association of Indian Students told The Times of India that the onus was on the universities to help students out of the sticky situation. “Students will be financially and socially impacted,” he said, adding that the move may lead to Indian students being wary of choosing the USA as a destination for higher education in the future.
As per the latest reports, the US Department of Homeland Security is planning to introduce temporary modifications to the F-1 and M-1 nonimmigrant visas granted to foreign students. These modifications will reportedly help students meet the requirements to continue staying in the country. However, what these modifications are have not been revealed so far.
"We really don't have an option but to wait and watch. If not anything, they must revisit this decision, keep in mind that we may turn potential carriers of the virus after the 18-hour long flight; capable of infecting our family members," says Harshad.
It is evident that the authorities have a lot to consider and what they decide will determine if the world continues to view the USA as the poster child for unending opportunities.