The Policy Might Be Gone — But the Fear Isn’t: International Students’ Reflections on ICE’s Response to COVID-19

By Charlie Cromwell-Pinder, Neha Damaraju, and Courtney Lasserre
Illustrated by Riya Damaraju

On July 6, 2020, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) issued a policy that affected international students’ ability to reside within the U.S. and continue their education at American universities and vocational schools. Under certain circumstances, this policy puts students in jeopardy of being unable to continue enrollment at their institution or deportation from the United States. 

On July 14 — just eight days later — this policy was rescinded during a hearing of the lawsuit brought against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

While students are currently safe from the aforementioned threats, the fear and anxiety provoked by the policy still linger. The ever-worsening COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated international students’ worries as the federal government threatens changes to visa programs under the guise of health, safety, and national security. Many say these same anxieties existed long before the coronavirus outbreak, as ICE gained strength and expanded its reach under the current administration. We asked 15 international students about how ICE’s newest policies would have affected them and how the initiation of these policies made them feel. We invite you to read these students’ stories, as well as more about these policies below:

Read real student perspectives on ICE’s July 6th policies:


Over the past four months, many international college students have expressed fear and anxiety regarding their plans, safety, and futures as new policies continually cast shadows of doubt over their lives.

In mid-March, many U.S. university students were forced to pack their bags, say goodbye to their friends, and return home due to the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic. While the decision to move classes online blindsided campus communities, international students studying at these schools faced a uniquely difficult task as they were forced to consider sudden travel expenses, health and safety concerns, and international regulations—all within a matter of days in order to decide where to spend the rest of the semester.

However, on March 13, as many students contemplated their next steps, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) enacted policies allowing non-immigrant international students to maintain their status while studying online, whether they chose to remain in the U.S. or return to their home countries. While this temporarily mitigated fears, experts predicted the pandemic would trudge well into the following school year, leaving millions of international students uneasy about their futures.

On July 6, international students were given a statement that many had nervously and fearfully anticipated when the SEVP announced changes to the temporary exemptions made in March. As per these changes, students already holding F-1 (academic student) and M-1 (vocational student) visas would not be permitted to remain in the U.S. should their school decide to offer instruction solely online. Furthermore, the DHS would not issue new visas to incoming students whose schools stay completely remote. 

Additionally, the policy barred F-1 students from taking more than one online course if their school operates in-person, and only allowed students whose schools were fully online to study from their home countries. In the case that a school pursued a hybrid (mixed online and in-person) model, international students were required to take at least one in-person class. This meant that students currently residing in their home countries would be forced to gamble their health in order to return to the U.S. if their school pursued a hybrid or in-person model, otherwise losing their visa status. Still, students in countries like China and the U.K. faced a unique predicament, considering there are travel bans in place to prevent citizens of those countries transmitting COVID-19 to the U.S. There were no exemptions to these bans for international students, leaving those students without the option of traveling back to the U.S. to further their education.

While these policies were rescinded on July 14 during a hearing in the joint MIT/Harvard lawsuit against the Trump administration, many international students have continuously feared for their status as the federal government threatens their visas amid the pandemic. When the policies were published in early July, millions of international students were put at risk and felt anxiety so great that they booked emergency plane tickets and considered abandoning their degree programs altogether. This article serves as a reminder of the importance of our international students and a call to legislators to ensure that they are always permitted a place at U.S. academic institutions. 

As a result of the rescission, the guidance for international students pursuing degree programs at U.S. schools returns to the exemptions issued in mid-March by SEVP.

Student Perspectives

Tina: Incoming First-Year student from Singapore

This new policy means that I will have to risk my health and well-being to travel to the United States if my college is hybrid in order to maintain a valid visa. If my school would decide sometime through the semester to switch to online I would be deported. However going back to Singapore where my family is would not be an option because firstly the Singaporean borders have been closed since March and secondly I’m not eligible for repatriation since my parents are expats working in Singapore.

I’ve heard the horror stories about how after students graduate from their undergraduate institutions they have a limited amount of days before they’re deported unless they move to the J-1 (grad school) visa quick enough. If my visa status was revoked I wouldn’t be able to study in the United States. Having gone through the college application process like everyone else I rejected other offers for one university. But if due to my visa I won’t be able to come to the United States I will waste a year not receiving an education.

I hope that the government rescinds this policy and allows international students currently in the United States to continue their education regardless of a university’s fall instruction plans. Once the policies and rescinded I hope universities can transition to a fully online fall semester for the safety of all their students, faculty, and staff.

Melissa: Undergraduate Student from China

I am from Beijing, China. I moved to the U.S. at the age of 15 as a dependent on my father’s work visa, and now I am 19, staying on my student visa from WashU. I attended a public high school in a Kansas City suburb, and underwent one of the most transformative processes in my entire life. I had to speak in a foreign language, make brand new friends in a place where I’ve never set foot in, and adapt to a new culture that I’ve only learned about in movies and TV shows. As much effort as I’ve given, I also grew as a person and learned the most during these years. From a clueless girl who’s afraid of saying something wrong or dumb, to someone who voices her opinion on issues even as controversial as the American politics, I’m no longer just an international student from China. As much as I try to stay connected to my roots, I have integrated into the American society and now am holding an important position in it. 

My college education which started the summer of 2019, is something I absolutely cherish. I expected to expand myself in an academic environment. Just this past semester, I decided I would be double majoring in sociology on top of psychology, which is my first major. I didn’t make this decision lightly–I decided because I realized changes are to happen, and soon, in the U.S. And I wanted to be a part of that change, influencing as many people around me as possible. 

Then came the news of ICE announcing a new regulation for international students that basically prohibits us from staying in the U.S. on the grounds of something we do not have control over. As someone who walks on the verge of two cultures, this was surprising and hurtful. And above all, personal. This feels as if my four years here in the U.S. are simply erased, denied. In plain words, I am scared, not only because there is a possibility that I had to go back to China for an online semester, but because of the fragility of my “international” identity. One small change in the American law, and I’m gone for good. The most crucial periods of my education that shaped me as who I am today cannot be taken back. 

I am not American, but I am Americanized; I am not a citizen, but I am a part of my community (in both Kansas City and St. Louis); I can’t vote, but I want to work on these problems alongside my American friends and peers in my own ways. This new “temporary modification” proposed by ICE is harmful to the international students as well as the Americans, and its effects will be seen rippling throughout because we are all dependent on each other. In times of a global pandemic and social changes, it is not necessary that we separate ourselves into distinct groups; instead, it is a time that we all fight on together. 

Sara: Undergraduate Student from the Czech Republic

As someone who has always thought education was about so much more than simply taking classes, this rule affects everything about my college experience but the part where I have to take classes. On campus, I am very involved and part of multiple clubs that each speak to one of my varying interests. However, now that I am unable to attend in person, I lose that crucial aspect of my college experience. I have felt separated from my clubs and experiences within these clubs throughout spring semester, mostly because of the nine hour time difference between the Czech Republic and California. Since most events happen after 5pm, or within the 8pm to 10pm time zone PST time, that is starting at 2am for me and going onto 7am. While at first in the spring semester I tried to wake up in the middle of the night for these events, I quickly realized that it was detrimental to my health. The pressure I put on myself, however, to still attend and connect with my friends makes me feel guilty everytime I skip a meeting because of this time zone issue. This time zone issue also often prevents me from attending office hours or studying together with my friends, since the times I am available are always times they are not available. The only thing that is left for me to do, therefore, is watch recordings of my lectures (often not even being able to participate at the same time) which is a sad substitute for what my college experience used to be.

This crazy time difference also affects my ability to lead a normal social life in either place that I am at. Since my friends in California are awake at different times that I am, we seldom find a common time to catch up and facetime. Additionally, my friends in the Czech Republic, on the other hand, like to meet up in the late afternoon and evening, which is often when I am studying since that is the only time that I am able to attend lectures in person or office hours (evening in the Czech Republic is the 8am to 1pm time for California).

Recently, I also got a very cool lab opportunity starting in the fall that I am super excited about. Our cohort meetings, however, are Wednesdays starting at 5pm and once again because of the time difference I am afraid I will not be able to attend. However, while people might be understanding, I still feel guilty about not being able to attend since I am genuinely interested in meeting and discussing my work with my peers and since not attending these meetings will seem like I am not taking the lab project seriously enough.

In the past I have already been afraid about how I would find a job in the US and stay in the US after college given there are so many rules and regulations now surrounding immigrants. This definitely further worsens that fear and makes me realize that I am actually unwelcome in this country. I have now given up on my dreams to find employment in the US and instead have been actively looking for internships and jobs after college in Europe or Asia. While this is not ideal, since I have created a community for myself in the US, I cannot live in a place where I feel like I am not wanted and where I am in constant fear of deportation. I am hoping one of three options happen. 

  1. The government reverses the travel bans and the rules on international students, realizing that one cannot be a full-time college student with such a crazy time difference and with being so far away from everyone and everything.
  2. The school creates more in-person classes that I could take to satisfy the requirement on the ratio between online and in-person classes for international students. These classes also have to be major related and useful since I am not trying to simply fill my schedule with PE Yoga classes to simply fulfill the requirement.
  3. If point 1 and 2 above fails, I wish the University allowed students to take a semester off without penalty and without the need to reapply at the institution (currently, if I want to take a semester off, I would have to reapply to the University and it is not guaranteed I would be admitted again). Taking a semester off and not having to pay full tuition for a few online classes I would be taking with a crazy time difference would be a much better use of my time since I could use that time to find a full-time job within Europe or find another opportunity within Europe that would at least be within my own time zone.

If my visa status was revoked, I would have to apply for a new visa again with uncertain results. Overall, it would bring additional stress and anxiety to me and my family. I am very sad.

Anon: Undergraduate Student from Hong Kong

I am a sophomore studying engineering, and I hold an F-1 visa.The policy change will certainly bring up a lot of uncertainty regarding my future as a student at [my university]. Traveling internationally is already a lot to manage, but the ICE’s policy adds a lot of uncertainty about how to maintain my student status in the U.S. It definitely has impacted my academic life as well, given that maybe for an even longer period of time I won’t be able to return to campus. Lastly, the change puts having to travel back to the U.S. on the table, which adds a lot of risk of catching the virus (on the plane, at the airport, etc).

I certainly don’t feel easy at this moment. The ICE policy has never been this harsh/severe in the past. Given that I study STEM, which is already a restrictive and sensitive field especially for ICE and DHS, this new policy change only adds fear and puts my future academic career in doubt. The best scenario for me is if the government makes an exemption for international students. The current policy either pushes those students out of the U.S. if the college is entirely online or drags their peers who’ve gone home back to the U.S. I would love to see a policy where under the hybrid model, the students who are already abroad can remain home, take classes that count towards their degree, and maintain their active SEVIS status.

The visa is like the ticket for me to enter the US, but Form I-20, which is tied to SEVIS, is the document I need to stay legally in the US. The ICE policy not only targeted student visas but also targeted a student’s SEVIS status. Now, if any of them gets revoked, I will have to go through a lengthy process between me, [my university], SEVP and my local US consulate to get new forms and visa, which can take at least a month to complete. It’s a lot of trouble and right now given the virus, US consulate appointments are fully booked till September. If I were to return to [my university] normally after the virus, and I have to re-apply for my student status, I may risk not be able to go back on time and miss weeks of classes.

Helen: Undergraduate Student from England

[With this policy], I’m not sure how feasible me taking an entire semester – or even year – of online classes is, especially with the time difference. The policy change definitely threatens my degree progress. The idea of potentially having to apply and pay for my visa again stresses me out too.

I also signed a year-long lease that I’d still have to pay for, so that’s added to my long list of concerns if I can’t go back to campus. I guess most of my stress comes from not really knowing how the policy change will affect me yet. Nonetheless, I know there are others in much more precarious situations than me.

I’m still processing everything – it’s been a long week!  It’s so frustrating to know that an education that I’ve worked so hard for and a life that I’ve built up in a new country can be taken away so easily and callously. I found my university’s initial communications to be incredibly slow and lacklustre. It made me feel even more helpless about the policy changes. It’s early days and things move fast so I’m trying to stay hopeful that the situation will improve.

With the current administration, I’ve had concerns about my status since I first got my visa approved! You never know when a new, harmful rule might get passed and disrupt your life. I’ve found myself second guessing a lot of my decisions. I know I’m usually overthinking it, but you don’t really get to make mistakes.

I’ve definitely been pushing my college for policies that work around ICE’s directive and don’t really trust them with the follow-through. Regardless, I think the best case scenario would be for the directive to be dropped completely. No one should have to choose between maintaining their visa status and maintaining their health. Plus, travel bans exacerbate the situation. The policy changes are unnecessary and unproductive. I hope more institutions pursue and/or support legal action. Thinking more big picture, I want ICE to be abolished altogether.

I have no idea [what would happen if my visa status was revoked]. I’m back in my home country, so I suppose I would try to find an internship or job for the semester/year. Easier said than done, though. I don’t know where or when I’d finish off my degree.

Ahlaam: Undergraduate Student from England

As a low-income international student from the UK, this policy affects me in multiple ways. My college will be following the hybrid plan, but the UK is still on the travel ban, so I have to spend fourteen days quarantining in an exempt country before I can enter the US, all in the middle of a global pandemic, not to mention the fact that in-person classes being mandatory for international students are in themselves a health concern. My financial aid is also on the line, because if my college decides to go remote, my refund will be smaller. I require this refund to live, whether on or off campus. 

I feel disgusted at [the policy]; it’s rooted in an institutional xenophobia displayed by ICE at every level. International students are only the most recent targets. Undocumented students have faced this targeting for years and the movement to abolish ICE started with them. We must stand with one another.

Of course, I hope the policies are reversed altogether, but I’m not sure about the likelihood of that happening. On a university level, I hope each college ensures that there are policies in place to make sure every international student is enrolled in at least one in-person class, and that they continue to support their international communities. In the long run, we must put our weight behind abolishing ICE altogether. 

[If my visa status was revoked] it would pose a massive issue to me as a low-income student, because the cost of getting a new visa is enormous, and getting a new one is already massively difficult. 

AMy: Undergraduate student from England

The policy change will disproportionately harm low-income students who are on their university’s financial aid— contrary to popular belief, we really don’t have the money to buy a last-minute plane ticket to college or back, or to pay for an apartment that we are not living in. My ability to pay rent and buy food is entirely dependent on the financial aid that Northwestern provides me with, as is the case for many others in my position.

The emotional toll that policies like this can create is enormous, and outcomes like potentially losing financial aid, dropping progress on your degree, and spreading this stress to all of the families involved definitely hit harder when you remember that this isn’t how most of the (domestic) American population perceive you. 

Although I feel stressed and overwhelmed by the potential outcomes of a policy like this, I am also deeply aware that colleges are, on the whole, invested in their international students enough to be at least publicly in support of methods to keep them safe and enrolled. 

I am extremely privileged never to have feared for my status as an F-1 holder in the US, but I know that to many, many students, the threat of a possible ICE intervention at any time is a deeply troubling and unnecessary addition to the already overwhelming experience of being at an elite institution. 

For a start, I don’t think that this policy should have been made in the first place. Under the current policy, there really isn’t a situation where all internationals would be satisfied or kept where they’d like to be. I think that even if universities are as accommodating as they can be, they have ultimately been trapped by ICE’s decision to the extent that they can help their international students

I hope that on a broader scale, colleges see this policy as a chance to really examine and question ICE and the values that it enforces. On a smaller scale, I hope that colleges make sure that their international students with financial need feel safety and stability in whichever location they must be. 

Stuti: Undergraduate Student from India

There’s three main rules [with this policy], depending on what the university’s reopening plans are. So the fact that they would be deporting kids who are enrolled in the fully online schools is just the first one. There’s also the third point which is for hybrid schools–  which is what affects me because I go to UChicago and they are going to be hybrid. So for hybrid schools, you have no choice but to be in the States, and also take face to face classes. And if at any point during the semester, all your classes become online, you will be deported within 10 days. So, for me as an international student, I wasn’t planning on coming back and forth, because of many concerns. I would have to take a 16 hour flight and I live in a city that does not have an international airport, so I would have to go through 3 airports to get to Chicago. 

I was also planning to live on campus for four years. But, because I am a rising third year, I was told that I would not get housing on campus because they’re prioritizing first years and then second years. So it means that I would have had to travel in the middle of a pandemic and also learn how to live by myself in an apartment in a foreign country for the first time. So, it wasn’t an ideal situation. I also have a billion allergies and I don’t have the strongest lungs. So I see myself as being vulnerable. And I did not want to put myself in that situation where I would be constantly exposed to the virus. Given all of that, I did not want to come back, but because my institution is hybrid at the college level I now need to go back. I did not have any choice, I had to sign a lease. And on top of that, I have to take a face to face class. I will also  be deported within 10 days, if there is any reason classes go online. I am constantly and I will constantly be scared. What happens  if that one class that I’m taking goes online so if the professor feels unsafe?

UChicago has a breakdown of the quarter so we have a 10 week long quarter and then a finals week. So what they’ve done is the first week will be online, then there will be eight weeks of in person instruction. And then after Thanksgiving they have another week of online instruction and then the finals week. So for me, that means with these new rules I will have to go back for just eight weeks. So, it is inconvenient, to say the least. And I also explored what options I have in terms of staying at home. And I can’t do that because I lose my visa. I can technically reapply, but right now, since there are so many students who are going to the US for the first time this year, they all have their appointments lined up. People who are applying now are getting dates in February. So if I apply now, I don’t know when I’ll get the appointment to the embassy and I don’t know when I can go back, maybe spring. Also, if I get a new visa, I’d have to study for three quarters before I can get paid for any job or internship that I do. An internship  is going to be crucial to what career I go into. And, as somebody who plans to do a post graduation from the US even though I don’t plan to immigrate I do kind of need a job in the states for those two three years before I can go to business school. So, for me like my third year internship is important and I cannot afford to stay there and do an internship if I’m not paid for it. So, that goes out the possibility of me staying home or taking a leave of absence or anything of that sort, I have no choice but to go back. So for me, the biggest like the bane of this came from the fact that I lost the liberty to be able to decide where I stay or when I go. 

I don’t feel good. I am in fear of losing my status and it can also be disadvantageous to be an international student as we don’t have any job security. Not only in the USA, but also back home. If we come back, there is an implicit assumption that the employer thinks we came back to our home country because we couldn’t find a job there, or that we came home because we expect higher salaries than students who studied in our homeland. We are at a disadvantage in both places. I never feared losing my status when I was studying in the US earlier. This is very new and very uncomfortable but yeah I did always worry about my future and what I was going to do after I graduated that’s something that always hangs over our heads. I put in so much effort into getting in. My parents’ years of hard work has gone into paying for my education, and I go there because they invited me, and then one fine day they can just show a notice in my face that says you know you are invalid you are illegal, you need to meet all you need to come back on our terms and do what we tell you to do. If this is how we are treated, I don’t even want to imagine how people seeking help, or better opportunities are treated. It’s just painful to see this happen — [the universities] were the ones who wanted us and now they’re forced to throw us out. It’s not fun feeling like a football when we were once a trophy.

Right now, what I’m hoping the most for is for them to repeal the first clause in that rule which says that they will deport all the students who are taking all online courses. Because I have cousins and friends who are in the States right now who will be in critical fear of deportation. So I definitely want that to be completely reversed. I also want them to remove that clause which states that if at any point during the semester all your classes go online you will be deported. The universities has to commit to either being completely online, or being hybrid and having at least a few in person courses, and once they make that commitment, they are stuck because if they open their colleges, and for whatever reason, cases spike, and they feel that it’s in the best interest for them to go for me online — they won’t be able to do that as kids will be deported, and I’m assuming that they wouldn’t want that. I feel like those two clauses should just like disappear. Since my school is pursing the hybrid model, I also wish that my school has some sort of generic course that everybody can enroll in, because I know that I’m a third year right so I am double majoring so I have very restricted choice in terms of the course load that I can take. So I know that I can take at most four or five courses, and I barely have any choice in what those four or five courses are going to be and all of them are lecture classes with more than 50 kids, so I know none of them are going to be in person. So, if I have to complete my degree on time and graduate with those majors I cannot afford to skip any one of those classes but that means I won’t be able to enter the states, and I’ll also lose my visa. So, I would really want the university to just have like a basic 100 level course that I can enroll in but I don’t have to put any effort into, or that at least, even if I have to put in some effort it teaches me something about the state of the world right now. 

[If my visa was revoked], it would be terrible because I wouldn’t able to take classes anymore. Had the state of the world been normal, taking a gap year or taking a leave of absence for one quarter would not have been as bad because I would have found other things to do. But right now, like, even for summer, my internship was canceled. I had it and it got canceled like three days before the start date. So now I’m taking like Coursera courses, but I cannot do that for too long, I have to be productive. So if I take any of absence I wouldn’t have as many productive things to do so that would be bad. It will also be bad because I don’t know when I would get a new visa. So I do not have the certainty of being able to go back in January. So there’s that. Basically, since my school is hybrid, and I do not want to take a gap year, I have no choice but to go back. However, I have friends in semester schools who want to go back but are not able to because there are no flights. So, there’s also that. A lot of kids are also stuck because even though they want to go back to save their visa they’re not able to simply because no flights, or the travel restrictions, but hopefully by the time I have to go back commercial flights will have started.

The sheer genius of this move is that they have chosen to target the most vulnerable subgroup of the population: they have chosen 19 year old kids or 20 year old kids who have nobody to actually rely on — and they are also the population that makes all these paternalistic institutions productive. So the moment they targeted these students, governments across the world got super concerned, parents across the world got super concerned, businesses across the globe got super concerned — they were all saying we need to do everything we can to stop this from happening. The other cogs have started moving so I feel like, at least at the end of the day, there will be some change of the rules so that we are not so afraid of being raided from our homes. That would be the least humane thing that they can do.

Saksham: Undergraduate Student from INdia

I haven’t been affected as negatively as some others. I checked about going back in the fall, and my visa is still there. I just need to pay the service fee again. It is only my credit card that is needed, it is around $400, and I will have my f1 again to return to the United States, if I need to in the fall. But it is dangerous to travel right now, which makes it a big issue for me and other students coming back to United States in the fall. 

In person classes and taking classes online is like really really different. International students pay hefty tuitions fee and if I had to study online only I could have done that at less than a 1/3rd cost. And online teaching affects the learning capacity of a student. Learning in-person and learning  online are very different things. Students are not able to focus on online studies and not able to retain as much as they could have in an in-person class. The study environment at home and at school are very different. Speaking of third world countries students might not be able to get access to internet or technology at all times. And they also might have other home issues. Many students are also relied on their universities for their basic needs and on campus jobs also supports the student. So taking online class has also deprived them from this. The stimulus present in a schools environment affects ones growth and mental capacity and also the capacity to learn. So students are being deprived of that in an online class. The one-on-one interaction with professors and learning from their peers are all being taken away.

I feel terrible [about the ICE’s decision]. The american government is not stable right now, according to my opinion. Something or another always comes up every six months. It is certainly affecting my education now and in the long run it would affect me when I apply for jobs. The chances of us getting jobs in the United States are between none to slim, and policies like this make it even harder for us. Especially since we cannot work more than 20 hours a week as a student, but need the income when we are here. I am in India, but students currently in the US are being affected big time. They would have to leave the US. Also,  in and to India there are currently no international flights

One of the main sources of income for a university is their international students. So I would definitely hope that I would see us be able to come back to US and complete our education. If we cannot come back, there should be exceptions for students who cannot leave so that they can stay safe during this time. There is a lot of gray area in what schools and counselors can do to keep their students safe right now and safe from being deported and I hope they do what is best for everyone. I really hope there is some positive news because everyone has a right to study, it is a human right. Especially if someone is paying you dollars to your country for that right, you shouldn’t be able to stop them. 

[If my visa was revoked] it would be terrible. I would have to go to the embassy, get a new visa — it is a huge process, especially considering the current pandemic. I don’t know if the embassy is open, but getting an appointment would be very delayed and possibly extra cost. It would be very busy and difficult. I may even consider changing my university, just like that. I might not come back to the States. I don’t know. 

I believe like [certain students] have been affected a lot, and I mean, people cannot just leave the US for many reasons: the pandemic, family savings cannot afford plane tickets, etc. Considering the fact that we are in the middle of a pandemic, it is hard to believe that the government would not be more lenient

Ellie: Undergraduate Student from Scotland

As the travel ban has not been lifted I am being forced to study online for next semester. Most of my classes for my theatre major are practical. It is not possible to take an acting class online. Therefore I am being forced to take other classes so that I do not affect the quality of the teaching I am receiving. This means that I will have to take more classes towards my major at the one time limiting my choice to take GR’s I’m actually interested in. 

I have already booked my flights and last semester lost £800 on flights home because I had to cancel them and leave campus early. Financially I can not afford to lose any more money on flights. I need the travel ban to be lifted so that I do not lose any more money. I am also unable to take a semester out as my parents are hoping to retire in 2023 and that requires me to graduate on time. Therefore, I must unfortunately take online classes if I have to.

I did not sign up for an online degree and with my theatre major it will not help me progress. I chose to study in America for the culture and the people. I do not want to spend my sophomore year in my home whilst all my American friends are on campus. It makes me feel like I am an alien unable to join my fellow classmates.

Charlie: Undergraduate Student from Wales

There are so many aspects still uncertain about the entire situation that it’s hard to really comprehend what the true effects will be. I am significantly more fortunate in this situation than most because I have the opportunity, thanks to friends, to spend 14 days outside of the US and avoid the travel ban for student visas on top of the fact that my university is following a hybrid model to ensure I can come back. However, most people don’t have the means to do this. That makes them stuck outside the US because of a travel ban with the government saying that they have to be on campus because WashU is going hybrid to protect the students already in the US. This can harm international students in so many different ways – financially (with leases and financial aid), emotionally (the stress and trauma of this situation on top of COVID-19), socially (they might have to miss out on a semester of college), and more. For me, the worst aspect has been the emotional harm. On top of an already stressful situation with COVID-19, this has added even more emotional strain and has given me and my family more financial concerns, especially because I am on a full scholarship from WashU.

When I got my student visa, I thought that I wouldn’t have to worry about my visa status until I graduated, when I would be looking for jobs and starting to build my life potentially in another country. The fact that I am only a rising sophomore and in the middle of a global pandemic I have to consider the fact that I may need to re-apply for my student visa makes me worry about my visa status while I am a student and what could potentially happen over the next 3 years. The fact that some people have to live with this type of fear because of ICE all the time is sickening and terrifying, and despite this happening, I recognize the privilege I still have in this situation. 

I do not think that the ICE policy will change anytime soon, so I appreciate the fact that a lot of universities are trying to do some form of hybrid model, even if it’s just for internationals to be allowed back on to campus. However, I hope that because of this, the US government adds student visa holders to the list of essential travelers so that the current travel bans don’t affect them. With that in place, students have somewhat more of a choice. [if my visa was revoked] I would be forced to take a semester or year off college, which would severely affect my financial aid and could prevent me from completing my education in the US. 

Yousuf: Undergraduate Student from Wales

I am a rising sophomore (incoming second-year) at Harvard College studying Computer Science and Government. Harvard’s recent decision means that I will be spending the next academic year online as all classes and instruction will take place over Zoom and all exams will be in an online format. The College, in efforts to de-densify the campus, are only bringing back 40% of students to campus this autumn, and they have decided to only bring back the incoming first-year class as well as any upperclassmen who have difficult at-home situations that could prevent them from studying at home effectively. As I am not a part of the first-year cohort they selected, my options for the next year are to either stay at home to study or petition to stay on the de-densified campus this fall.

This decision that Harvard has taken is unfortunately much stricter than many other US institutions who have decided to bring more students back to campus than just one class. However, due to Harvard’s location in a very urban environment, it seems to be the safest option they could have opted for. I was sent home back in March before Spring Break and have not yet returned to the United States. My belongings are still stored in the U.S. with the expectation that I will be coming back in August to pick them up and move-in. I have been planning on petitioning to stay on campus for the next year as my at-home learning environment proved to be quite difficult during last semester when we had to swiftly move to online instruction for the rest of the term. However, the ICE policy now means that international students enrolled at any Higher Education institution where all classes will be taught remotely for the next year must leave the U.S. 

This is very unfortunate as it means I will not be able to go back and stay on campus even if I successfully petition because all of Harvard’s instructions will be online. This is a huge blow to international students and universities because it is unexpected and will have devastating repercussions for many students. There is great disappointment at the late timing of the announcement for all. Those international students that are still in the US are hardest hit since the late timing exacerbates difficulty securing overseas housing and plane tickets whilst also navigating travel bans. While I am not in this situation, it is unfortunate that so many of my peers who are unable to return home for a variety of reasons have been given no other option but to. Being forced to travel during a pandemic will also endanger the health of students, the families they return to, and the wider community.

I personally feel very distraught by the recent ICE policy. The move to online learning is a disruption to my education as I cannot simply continue my studies at home as I would on campus due to the lack of resources available and the difficulty of being at home in an overseas country. One of the problems for me is the time zone difference. During the latter half of last semester, I found myself having classes and Office Hours as late as 4 AM which would wake everyone in my household up and just proved to be very difficult every day. Another huge problem I had was having an unstable WiFi connection that hindered my online learning experience. There were many times when my internet connection would cut out during classes or when I was presenting which was a huge challenge as I’d miss out on learning, especially during classes that weren’t being recorded. There was even a time when my WiFi cut out half way through a timed exam which was very stressful and a huge inconvenience since I lost all my work I completed up to that point. Being at home also meant that there was no quiet place for me to work at all since both of my parents work from home and my younger brother does his school work from home so late classes meant I kept them up late at night and it was very loud at times when we were all on calls in a small house. The WiFi also cannot handle the entire family being on multiple video lectures and calls at the same time. I also understand that for many students, being at home has considerably affected our mental health, and the friendships and services we once had to rely on and help with such issues are no longer there. Last semester, Harvard decided to implement an emergency pass/fail grading policy to partially deal with these issues, but this semester the college has decided to switch back to letter grades even though home situations have not drastically improved since last semester. With all these difficulties and more, I believed that it would’ve been best for me to stay on campus for the next academic year and continue my studies online in a dorm room on campus. However, this ICE ruling currently means this is not possible anymore and my education could now be in serious jeopardy. 

The Harvard and MIT Lawsuit could hopefully help reverse the ICE policy, however, as of now, I feel stranded and hopeless with very limited options on what I can do. The uncertainty of the whole situation has left me feeling very stressed this past week. I am also anxious about the uncertainty of my F1 visa as, in the worst case if it were to get revoked, I could lose my current on-campus employment which I am doing online and lose my source of income for this summer and the fall. Everything feels up in the air right now as we are still trying to understand how this can impact our lives in more ways than just not being able to return to campus. Luckily, Harvard will be providing a $3,000 grant for those who qualify for financial aid to cover term-time work expectation and this is especially helpful for internationals who are limited to on-campus work only. This is not the case for many other US universities, however. Harvard is also providing a $5,000 accommodation refund for the semester, but many people argue this may not be enough to offset the costs of working from home as it will still leave a largely unequal and uneven playing field which would usually be resolved by all students being on the same campus with access to the same resources. There are also unexpected costs that I have to consider, such as the $2,000+ it will cost me to ship my belongings back to the UK if I am to stay home for the next year. Incoming international students have also paid $350+ for unused SEVIS fees and visa interviews which are no longer taking place.   

The ICE policy has left many international students in extremely difficult situations with very little option on what to do. For many international students who simply cannot return home, the risk of deportation is a very scary thought. For many international students who simply cannot work from home, the risk of jeopardizing their education for a whole academic year is equally a very scary thought. I am devastated that I will be missing a whole year of my college experience and I, like many international students, feel very left in the dark and neglected by this whole situation. International students don’t feel they will get the support they need for a safe and equitable semester. I hope the ICE policy is reversed so I am able to go back to campus and study remotely from a dorm room.

Anon: Graduate Student from Uruguay

I’m from Uruguay, on an F-1 Visa, and a graduate Student in Hispanic Studies [in my] third year. [ICE’s policy] affects me in many ways. In terms of degree progress, I will have to change my course load for the Fall in order to avoid the risk of losing lawful student status. As a result, I may need to change my research plans for the rest of my Ph.D. Hybrid courses are not a definitive solution, because if the pandemic keeps getting worse during the semester and the university needs to move to fully online, I will be forced to leave the country anyway. If that happens, it would be a financial disaster for me (ending my lease, buying an emergency plane ticket, losing my belongings, etc.), as well as a big blow to my professional development (I won’t be able to continue with my research in Uruguay). Not to mention that hybrid and in-person courses will put our health at greater and unnecessary risk.

In addition to that, it is still unclear what would happen with the funding I receive as part of my fellowship as a Graduate Student, since it is linked to the Visa status and to my teaching work.

So overall, the new policy adds a significant level of anxiety and uncertainty to my professional and personal future. I hope the lawsuit succeeds and they reverse this new policy. If not, I hope the university could offer some kind of support and protection to international students.

I feel that I am facing a very cruel and unexpected situation: I am basically being forced to risk my health or get deported. Although this is an unexpected change, the xenophobia and the attack on legal migration are hardly new. The legal situation of international students is very vulnerable, the current administration changes the rules every time, and universities don’t offer enough legal support, so you get used to being extremely cautious with a lot of minor details or you could be at risk of losing lawful status. In other words, yes, I’ve been fearing for my status since I came to the US. 

[If my visa/status is revoked], I will have to leave the country, lose my funding, and probably won’t be able to complete my Ph.D. So, it means losing my house and my job at the same time. That would have terrible consequences for my professional career. As a Graduate Student, I’m already a worker: I teach and do research (I published a book and an article since I arrived). When I left my country to come to the US, I gave up other career opportunities there, so I’ve invested a lot of time and resources in this degree. To sum up, if this new policy is approved, it would be utterly appalling.

Weiying: Graduate student from china

In my hometown and country, coming to the United States was always viewed as the “end goal” in terms of education and getting to the USA was always a race. While getting into a prestigious university in the US is clamored upon, being accepted anywhere in the states is good enough for most of the parental figures driving us to better ourselves through higher education. I tell this fact to you so that you, as a reader, can note that we spend a majority of our younger lives aspiring towards coming to the United States to study. It is thoroughly disappointing to not only current students, but prospective students, when policies like the ICE’s recent policy are put in place as it makes it seem as if there is no reciprocity. We are trained to want to come to the USA so badly, but we feel as if the US doesn’t want us there. It also places a huge burden on current high school seniors who are making the big decision on whether or not they want to study at an American university. 

In terms of my own degree progress, this policy would shatter my plans. I am currently pursuing my Ph.D. and due to the coronavirus outbreak, I have had to halt my research, which means that it may take much longer than expected to earn my degree. I am also currently back in China, as I needed to be with elderly family during this time. If I am not able to return to the US there is no way I can continue my research. Even if the few classes I take are online, it is essential that I return to the US if I would like to continue with my Ph.D. and accompanying research. I understand that every single student has had their education impacted by the pandemic, but policies like these make it even harder for a certain subset of the population to bounce back from the pandemic’s impacts. And honestly, there was a time when China was much worse off than the United States, yet I returned home. Now things have changed and the US is seeing shockingly high rates of infection from the coronavirus. If I am choosing to return to continue my education, I am making the personal choice to sacrifice my health — there is no need for the American government to make this choice for me. 

The program and university that I am a part of has been very supportive during this time, proving that universities understand and value international students, and want to see them be an engaged part of their school. This is also evident by the Harvard/MIT lawsuit. I’m honestly not sure if the policy was driven by ICE’s xenophobia or as a ruse to make sure universities, which are a huge part of the country’s economy, stay open. All I know is that regardless of the reasoning, the policy is unjust and hurtful to many. 

Aren: Medical Student from nigeria

I am in my second year of medical school at [redacted university name] and also studied in the United States for my bachelor’s degree, so I have been living and studying in the United States for the past 6 years. My home is in Nigeria, and due to the rigor of my university and distance between my home and my university, I rarely ever came home during holidays and breaks from school. I am currently still residing in the US when my medical school went online for the spring semester.

As an international student, it was very difficult to gain admission to medical school within the United States. We need to be almost 3 times as qualified as an applicant coming from the United States. We also sacrifice a lot of other facts: such as family, travel expenses, and job security when coming all the way to the US to study — but for me and my family it is worth it because the quality of education is so much higher. It felt so upsetting when the ICE’s policy was released. It made me feel like the hard work that I had put in for so many years could be taken away so quickly. My future, my career, my social life, my education — one policy was able to turn my whole world upside down. Especially when studying medicine, it was really hard to have a normal education and opportunities while the school went online for the semester. Having to take my education from Africa would make it ten times harder for me and I do not know how successful I will be in my studies. I may have to halt my degree or worse, quit. My whole family has contributed so much money for me to be able to pursue my dreams and one policy had us all in fear that I might not be able to achieve them after working so hard.

I have been here so long and am so accustomed to the US. I was accepted to come here and study and they now decide to take this away from us — when the whole world is at its most vulnerable. I have feared for my status in the US much in the past, and this policy does not make me feel easy. It is just another hurdle we need to jump, who knows how many more will be placed in our path as we try to get our education. I’m not sure what I hope will happen. I do not even know what my specific school is planning for next year. I just hope that my dreams, and those of many other students, can stop being jeopardized by external factors we cannot control. Continuing my medical degree from Nigeria is not an option for me — and if staying here is not an option either, I’m afraid of what will happen. 

In Conclusion,

These stories represent only a tiny fraction of the international students studying in the U.S.—but all of them display fear, anger, and anxiety, as well as hopes and dreams for their futures. It is unjust to establish this many obstacles to pursue an education, nor should policy ever target anyone on the basis of nationality or immigration status. This is a burden that international and undocumented students have battled for far too long, and it is past time that we protect these students from bureaucratic policies that jeopardize their presence in our academic institutions.  

Edited by Joshua Keller and Tyler Schutt

2 thoughts on “The Policy Might Be Gone — But the Fear Isn’t: International Students’ Reflections on ICE’s Response to COVID-19

  1. Hello there! This blog post could not be written much better! Going through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He constantly kept talking about this. I most certainly will send this article to him. Fairly certain he’ll have a good read. Thanks for sharing!


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