International College Students Face A ‘Cruel Choice’ With New ICE Rule Mandating In-Person Classes

The University of Chicago campus
The University of Chicago campus. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ
The University of Chicago campus
The University of Chicago campus. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

International College Students Face A ‘Cruel Choice’ With New ICE Rule Mandating In-Person Classes

University leaders in Illinois are grappling with how they can ensure international students will be able to continue their studies this fall after new federal guidance released Monday said they cannot remain in the United States if they take all their courses online.

“We would’ve hoped it would give us more flexibility to serve our students,” said Neal McCrillis, vice provost for global affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago on the city’s Near West Side, which has 4,400 international students. “It actually creates a lot of concern and worry for our students, both continuing students and new students. … It really makes it hard for us to serve our students adequately.”

International students had been allowed to continue the spring semester online after universities shifted to remote learning due to the novel coronavirus.

On Monday, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement shifted course. This fall, international students must take at least one class that is partially in-person as schools attempt to reopen amid an ongoing global pandemic. If colleges and universities shift fully online again in the fall due to a surge in COVID-19 cases, international students would be required to leave the country or transfer to another school where they can continue to meet the in-person requirements.

“It kind of falls in a larger trend of international students not feeling as valued in many ways as our U.S. citizen counterparts,” said Sasha Warren, a British graduate student at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. “It’s very frustrating to think we have to sacrifice our health, which could mean our entire lives, just to jump through a hoop that doesn’t need to be there.”

Warren said she wants to hear more from U of C about what might happen if the university has to quickly go entirely online again.

Many local universities, including the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said they are still evaluating the new guidance. A spokeswoman at UIUC, which has the fifth largest international student population in the country, said university leaders will reach out to impacted students as soon as possible, as did Northwestern University.

“Since there will be research and a number of in-person classes, most international students remain eligible to study on our campus this academic year, and we will be taking steps to help ensure that our international students are in compliance with the new policy,” wrote Bob Rowley, spokesperson at Northwestern, in an email statement.

DePaul University, which is holding a mix of in-person and online courses this fall, took a tougher stance against the decision.

“The suspension of temporary exemptions to existing regulations, to allow international students to take most or all of their courses online in Fall 2020 is unnecessarily punitive and puts our international students at a major disadvantage,” said spokeswoman Carol Hughes. “We share the frustration of our international students and let them know that we are in the process of getting further clarification regarding the SEVP COVID-19 guidance.”

McCrillis at UIC said they anticipate solutions will be determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on if the student is a new or continuing student and their program study. He said it’s unclear how many students will be affected, but the university could use hybrid courses with a partial in-person component or independent study to ensure international students can comply.

He said international students who returned to their home country when campus closed in March have struggled to return due to travel bans from certain countries and a fewer number of flights to the U.S. Plus, closed consulates have made it difficult to obtain required visas. While it’s believed many international students have remained in the U.S. since March, especially graduate students, McCrillis anticipates this new guidance will have the largest impact on graduate students expecting to start their programs in the fall.

At a virtual town hall Tuesday evening, University of Chicago dean Jay Ellison said the university will allow first-year international students who cannot secure a visa to attend the university through their international campuses in Paris and Hong Kong. Continuing international students in a similar situation also could attend the university’s other international campuses in Beijing, Delhi and London.

Charmaine Runes, another graduate student at the University of Chicago, has been in the U.S. for nine years. She is Filipina but also holds a United Arab Emirates resident visa and said she doesn’t know where she would go if she had to leave abruptly. In an email, she wondered what will happen to students whose home countries are unsafe.

“It just feels like international students are being forced to choose between risking their own and other people’s safety and health by taking more in-person classes or — if they can only take online courses due to the pandemic — face deportation,” she wrote. “It is a cruel choice that we shouldn’t have to make. It’s hardly a choice at all.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Charmaine Runes’ last name.

Kate McGee covers higher education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.