SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – As the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, many college and university students are opting to take a full load of online classes next month. But for international students, that could mean disqualification to remain in the United States legally.
“We are not sure what the rationale behind this is. But what I think as an immigration attorney is that President Trump is creating an invisible wall to keep our foreign nationals from coming or staying in the United States,” said Kim Buhler-Thomas. “I believe why we’re doing this is more of a political move so he can have a stronger backing from his constituents.”
Laura Fonseca, a business major at Salt Lake Community College flew to her native country, Colombia to visit family for spring break. But due to the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions, she hasn’t been able to return to Utah.
“The airports were closed and they’re still closed,” she said.
Meanwhile, BYU biochemistry student Peter Liang has remained at home while taking online classes to keep his wife and baby safe.
“The fear of getting COVID-19 and bringing it back to my family really weighs heavily on me on a mental level. My wife has some health concerns and if she got the virus, she could have very serious symptoms,” he said.
On Monday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a new rule that requires international students on an F-1 or M-1 visa to take no more than one class online at a college or university unless the course has an in-person component. Those who fail to comply could be forced to return to their native country.
The announcement left thousands of international students in Utah concerned about their health and safety during the pandemic.
“I was shocked by this policy change because I’ve always felt like the U.S. has been a country where humanity is one of its principal values. This policy is just so brutal towards international students. It feels like we have to choose between COVID-19 or leaving the U.S. I think it’s inhumane,” said Liang.
“I’m really worried about the possibility that when school opens in the fall, we’re going to see a rise in cases which will force classes to move completely online again. If that happens in the middle of the semester, I would have to move back to Korea,” said Jee Ha, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Utah.
The policy further complicated Mary Jantalert’s situation, who explains that she already completed her Master’s degree and was planning to leave the country to pursue her career before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and led to travel restrictions.
“I reached out to Homeland Security and they said they were not extending their grace period so they told me to go back to school if I wanted to stay here legally,” she said.
Jantalert enrolled for a software development program in the meantime at Salt Lake Community College to maintain her student status. But ICE’s new rule, she says, puts her in limbo because her native country of Thailand currently has travel restrictions that would prevent her from re-entering their borders.
“I feel so confused. I don’t know what the benefit of this is for either side. We international students pay triple the amount of tuition that a resident student pays. So they would lose all that money if a bunch of us left,” she said.
But Buhler-Thomas said there is some hope. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the new rule.
If successful, it would institute a temporary restraining order and prevent the government from enforcing the directive. Therefore, buying time for international students who would have otherwise only have six weeks to take action.
“They just have to show irreparable harm to their institution if this order is allowed to continue,” she said. “We would hope that this injunction would apply across the board for all schools.”
Other potential barriers posed to international students may include lack of financial means to return to their native country, difficulty of transferring to another institution, lost opportunity to work in the U.S. after graduation, and emotional trauma.
“I don’t know how long it will be until I can return to the United States and what if I don’t make it back before Fall semester to fulfill that in-person requirement? I’m so stressed out and I’m so sad because I’m close to graduating,” said Fonseca.
Buhler-Thomas said there are still many questions that remain about the new rule. Consequently, international students may have to transfer to another institution, request a visa from a third country, or risk deportation while staying in the U.S.
ABC4 News reached out to six of Utah’s universities and two colleges to ask about online v. in-person class availability. Most will offer a mixture of both in the fall, but some have not made their decisions yet.
“Time is not on our side because we only have a few weeks before we find out what our options are. That’s not a lot of time for someone if they have to pack up their life and move out of the country,” said Jantalert.
Officials from all eight schools that ABC4 News contacted ensured they would work with international students to make sure they could lawfully remain in the United States. For more information about a specific institution, please refer to statements provided below.