The U.S. I wanted to study in no longer exists

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Media: Christine Park

I did so many things to create a sense of belonging for myself in this unfamiliar country by empowering myself with knowledge and experience, only to learn that the future I wanted for so long might not even exist, and this country does not welcome people like me.

My boyfriend texted me right after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced on Monday that international students would need to leave the U.S. if their university transitions to online-only learning this fall. My first thought was, “Maybe this is a sign telling me that staying in the U.S. is not worth it. This is not what I came here for. Maybe I should just leave.”

Before this announcement, international students needed to be full-time students to maintain their crucial F-1 student VISA status. As undergraduate students, this means we need to enroll in at least 12 credit hours each semester during the academic year. Only one 4-credit online class can be counted towards this minimum requirement. When Emerson transitioned online during spring 2020, deportation quickly became a looming concern for many. However, after International Student Affairs told us this would not be a problem, we all shoved the issue aside.

That changed when the ICE announcement spread through the internet like wildfire. 

My instinct was to read the entire statement, trying to see if barring international students from taking full online courses within the country was all they said. Unsurprisingly, it was not. 

ICE also only gave schools 10 days to clarify to The Student and Exchange Visitor Program that the program will not be entirely online if they adopt a hybrid model (both online and in-person classes). This could mean that international students will need to get a new I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, from the school almost immediately. ICE also pointed out some “alternative steps” to maintain nonimmigrant status, such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave. But a reduced course load is only available for medical conditions, academic difficulties with class level or language barrier for first-year students, completion of a course of study for their final year with fewer classes, or part-time commuter students attending school within 75 miles of the U.S. border—none of which apply for most students. 

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The reality for many international students is that leaving the country sometimes makes a remote education impossible. In some parts of the world, internet connections can be spotty, and due to time differences, U.S. classes might take place in the middle of the night. And a number of  resources schools provide might not be available in many countries; for example, Google Suite is completely banned in China. Other classes, like performing arts or laboratory-based courses, are simply impossible to be fully online. 

Monday’s decision made me angry. I personally don’t need to study in the U.S. As a rising senior, I did not leave the country for this summer, so I can just suck it up, finish my final year of college, and then go home to China. I have my parents, my cat, and possible job opportunities waiting for me at home. Studying in the U.S. is not my only way of having an education, and staying in the U.S. is not my only way out. 

But this is not true for all international students. I can’t imagine what this would mean for international students who don’t enjoy the same privilege. Some of these students came to the U.S. not just for a better education, but for any education at all. They studied hard to leave their past behind, fleeing poverty and war zones, carrying the hopes of their family. They arrived here, seeking a new beginning in a country known for its open arms, only to realize everything has changed.

This is not the first time the Trump administration has forced immigrants and people holding non-immigrant status out of the U.S.. On April 22, Trump signed an executive order to temporarily halt immigration amid the coronavirus outbreak. Two months later, on June 22, The White House introduced a series of new restrictions on visas that allow immigrants to temporarily work in the United States due to the high unemployment rate caused by the pandemic. The Migration Policy Institute, a think-tank based in Washington, D.C., estimated that 167,000 temporary workers will be kept out of the country as a result. 

During his four-year presidency, Trump put travel bans on multiple countries periodically, decided to phase out DACA, canceled Temporary Protective Status, and separated families at the Mexican border. Looking back now, I have realized that this is not the same country that I longed for, and the reasons that I wanted to be here no longer exist.

I remember so many people asking me why I decided to study in the U.S. growing up. My answers were usually about how I wanted to try something new and experience something different, and that America, in my mind, was the best place for me to do that. I joined the student newspaper on campus, became a resident assistant, tried to catch up on American pop culture, applied for internships, and started to prepare for graduate school in the country.

I did so many things to create a sense of belonging in this unfamiliar country by empowering myself with knowledge and experience, only to learn that the future I wanted for so long might not even exist, and this country does not welcome people like me.

This is a frustrating moment for me. As I write, I cannot put my feelings into words. I always tell people to look on the bright side, but this time, I don’t know if there is one.  This country’s openness is long gone, and only the self-righteousness and unknown pride are left behind, half breathing like a fish on dry land. It’s disappointing to see a once-great nation become the self-isolating country it is today, and more disappointing to see the country I once thought could teach me so much become somewhere that I want to avoid.

I now implore the college and OISA to send out emails as soon as possible to explain how this announcement will affect international students both in and out of the country right now. If you want to do something about this unfair action, please sign this petition to allow F-1 students to stay in the U.S. through the fall semester. And for those who are feeling anxious and stressed out right now, it is okay to cry and reconsider your next steps. We are in this together, and you are not alone.