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Paxson denounces ICE guidance prohibiting international students from studying in U.S. with fully online course load

Students ‘stressed and concerned,’ grapple with ramifications

By and
Senior Staff Writers
Thursday, July 9, 2020

President Christina Paxson P’19 wrote that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s new guidance for the Student and Exchange Visitor Program is “nothing short of cruel” in a community-wide email sent Wednesday afternoon. The guidance could jeopardize the visa status of international students throughout the country this fall.

The guidelines, announced Monday, prohibit international students from returning to or remaining in the United States if they take a fully online course load or their university opts for online-only instruction next semester. The new regulations, which must be finalized later this month, come amid many universities’ announcements of fully online or hybrid models of instruction for the 2020-21 academic year. Brown announced its hybrid three-term plan Tuesday.

The guidance reverses a previous temporary exemption granted in March to international non-immigrant students on F-1 and M-1 visas in light of the COVID-19 pandemic — this exemption had allowed them to reside in the United States even while taking a fully online course load.

The new temporary rule is “a direct threat to public health,” Paxson wrote. The United States, and the University, welcome many international students annually: In the 2018-19 academic year, more than one million international students participated in graduate and undergraduate programs throughout the United States. In the same year, 1,718 international students were enrolled in University undergraduate and graduate programs.

Paxson also wrote that she “strongly support(s)” the lawsuit filed by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in federal court Wednesday morning against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The lawsuit seeks to bar ICE and the DHS from implementing these federal guidelines through a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunctive relief. Cornell joined the suit Wednesday. Brown has not joined the lawsuit.

Student Impact

Following the Tuesday announcement of the University’s plan for the coming academic year, the Global Brown Center sent an email to international students, reviewed by The Herald, outlining the guidelines’ implications for the fall.

The GBC Team wrote that the University would be offering a mix of in-person and online instruction in a hybrid model for the fall and that international students could continue to enroll in some online courses. The team confirmed that according to the new guidance, international students would be ineligible for obtaining a new F-1 visa stamp if they planned on engaging in an online-only course of study, barring them from re-entry. Those currently residing in the United States on an F-1 visa would be required to leave the country if they were to take an entirely online course load in the fall.

Despite the “disappointing news” that “comes at a stressful time for our international student community,” the team wrote that “planning for Fall 2020 has provided us with greater flexibility to contend with this evolving context.”

If the new guidance is finalized, the University would enable international students to register for at least one in-person class, Paxson wrote in her email to the University community. But the University could shift to entirely online instruction in the event of a major resurgence of COVID-19 in New England, which would prevent international students from being able to adhere to DHS guidance and undermine their legal permission to reside in the United States.

The University “will work with faculty to develop plans to minimize the chance that any of our international students — undergraduate, graduate or medical — are forced to leave the country,” Paxson wrote.

The GBC and the Office of International Student and Scholar Services are holding an official informational session today along with a town hall in the upcoming days, according to a post by Yanhoo Park Cho ‘21 in the Brown Internationals against Coronavirus Facebook group.

Student reactions

The DHS decision left many international students stunned. Aiganym Sadykova ’23, a student from Kazakhstan, was in shock after hearing the announcement. “I don’t think anyone saw it coming. It doesn’t really make sense to kick us out of the country like that.”

In light of the regulations and the University’s response, Anchita Dasgupta ’21, who is currently living in Kolkata, India, is “extremely stressed and concerned.” While Dasgupta thought the emails from Paxson and the GBC helped explain the broader implications of new guidance, she said they failed to fully address the gray areas within those implications. She explained that though University communication details the ability for international students to take some online-only courses, or to take an entirely online course load without returning to the United States, it has not comprehensively explained what various decisions would mean for students’ visa validity in future academic terms. “If I stay in my country and do online courses, they’re not telling me what is going to happen to my academic future, to me coming back and working here, to me just coming back in general,” Dasgupta said.

Khushi Agrawal ’23, who is also from India but is currently living in Texas with relatives, echoed Dasgupta’s concerns. “It’s all up in the air. It’s very scary and a little confusing,” Agrawal said.

The possibility that the University may need to transition to fully online instruction during the semester is a cause of particular anxiety for many students. If international students are unable to attend an in-person course, they would be in violation of current visa requirements and required to leave the United States within 10 days.

The situation leaves Dasgupta with a myriad of questions. “What is the repercussion of (visa non-compliance)? Is my visa going to get deactivated? What does it mean for my visa to get deactivated? When can I go back? Can I go back that semester?” Dasgupta asked.

Dasgupta also worries about a sudden transition to fully online classes jeopardizing her future permission to reside in the country in light of the new regulations. Specifically, to qualify for Optional Practical Training temporary work authorization — a two-track employment system, which can allow international students to work for up to 12 months in the United States pre- or post-graduation — students must stay in the country for an entire academic year. “So if I have to leave the country in the middle of the semester, can I use that OPT after I graduate in May?” Dasgupta asked.

Among the other unanswered questions that are leaving international students distressed is what will happen after Thanksgiving break when classes move online for reading period and final exams. “I am concerned that it might be viewed by the (United States) government as ‘switching to online.’ So I am wondering if I would have to go back to India then,” Agrawal said.

Students also expressed concern about the University’s July 15 deadline for completion of the Fall 2020 Location of Study Form, indicating an intention for either remote participation or campus attendance.

“This is just an absurd proposition (for international students), because right now we don’t know if we can stay here legally,” Dasgupta said. “We can’t make a decision in this kind of darkness.”

While Dasgupta is glad that Harvard and MIT are suing to block new DHS guidance, she does not view the lawsuit as a resolution for the current dilemma. “It’s a lawsuit, so it’s not going to fix anything overnight,” she said. Any success for the lawsuit would most likely be felt only after international students have already made decisions about pursuing in-person attendance, she added.

Sadykova, who sees herself going back to campus in the fall, is hoping for more direction from the University in the coming days. “With the new regulations, it brings up a lot of questions I want Brown to answer.”

But regardless of whatever support the University can offer, it cannot fundamentally change the current lose-lose situation, Sadykova says. “Even if we go back, the campus experience is not going to be the same. … There is really no best choice or best scenario that you could choose.”

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