Ms Katherine Sumantri was due to start the second and final year of her MSc in speech-language pathology course at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York.
WASHINGTON – After weeks of house hunting in New York City, graduate student Katherine Sumantri, 25, finally put in the paperwork to lease an apartment with three other student roommates on Monday (July 6).
She had already booked her flight from Singapore back to the Big Apple to start the second and final year of her speech-language pathology course at Teachers College, Columbia University, even though her classes were going to be exclusively online in the light of the ongoing pandemic.
But an hour after her lease paperwork was approved, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency issued a notice that students taking courses which were fully online would no longer qualify for visas.
This effectively ended the current exemption for international students whose classes had moved online over public health concerns.
The sudden change upended Ms Sumantri’s plans and those of hundreds of thousands other foreign students, who scrambled to clarify with their colleges whether they were affected.
“The reality of our situation as international students right now is that there is a lot of uncertainty and none of us really know what next move to make,” said Ms Sumantri, who cancelled her flight and had to back out of her lease.
“I’ve never been in this situation in my entire life, where you just feel so helpless.”
There were 4,632 students from Singapore studying in the US last year, according to figures from the Institute of International Education. The total number of international students in America is more than a million.
Some colleges are offering a mix of online and in-person classes or allowing students to change their course loads to take an in-person module, which could help them circumvent the visa restrictions.
At least a dozen top universities, including Ivy League institutions like Harvard University as well as the University of California network, have filed lawsuits or legal briefs challenging the ICE regulation.
“If the big guns and the pride of the US education system are sticking up for us, I think they will relook something, I hope,” said Ms Benita Lim, 33, who is entering the second year of her PhD programme in theology and culture at Fuller Seminary in Los Angeles.
Her school has to decide what to do by early August, she said, adding: “We will be in limbo for one month.”
Even students whose classes are partially in-person and are likely to be granted student visas have to decide if they want to return to the US and risk being kicked out if the coronavirus situation worsens and schools shut down again.
Ms Clarissa Eyu, 24, who is studying for a Master of Arts degree in strategic public relations at the University of Southern California, was told by her academic adviser that one of her classes fulfils the in-person attendance requirement.
“Even though it might take a burden off my shoulders now, it could still happen in the middle of the semester,” said Ms Eyu, who is returning to the US on July 15.
But if students choose to attend their online classes from Singapore, they will have to do so in the middle of the night because of timezone differences and lose access to labs and libraries.
Some Singaporean students have turned to online chat groups to keep themselves and each other up to date with the latest news, swap tips on how to navigate America’s byzantine immigration system and commiserate.
One student said she was rethinking admission to a local university, while another said she could not transfer her credits to the university she wanted.
CHOOSING BETWEEN HEALTH AND EDUCATION
Students from Singapore said that the visa rule also forces them to choose between their health and their education, unlike their American classmates who can take classes entirely online and not risk their health.
Ms Lim said she would not feel safe attending classes in person, as cases in California have been spiking and she still sees people going around without wearing a mask.
“You don’t know how many people will really be responsible on their part when they enter the classroom,” she said.
“At the end of the day, I’ll have to choose health. I live with people and I don’t want to worry my family. If it means just putting things on pause, I just have to do it.”
Those who plan to apply to work in the US after graduation under the Optional Practical Training scheme, a temporary work authorisation, must also be enrolled for one full academic year and be physically present in the US to qualify.
“I’m not just choosing between my education and my health, but also my future career ,” said Ms Eyu.
The ICE directive is one of several recent measures to restrict work and study visas for foreigners amid the pandemic. Critics say the coronavirus is being used as an excuse for the Trump administration to clamp down on overall immigration, as foreign students were allowed to take their classes online last semester.
“They were okay with it last semester when the pandemic was going on. The pandemic is still going on but they decided to change the rules,” said Ms Sumantri.
Said Ms Eyu: “I feel like we’re being used as pawns in something else.”
But she said she was heartened by support from her American classmates advocating on foreign students’ behalf to local politicians and from her school, which announced that international students who need an in-person class will be granted one at no extra charge.
“I went to high school in the States. I went to undergrad in the States,” said Ms Sumantri. “This is my home away from home and this is the first time in all those years that I’ve felt so unwelcome.”
“I don’t know how you can feel comfortable being in a place when you are told that they don’t want you there. It’s one thing for your friends to support you and your school to say that they want you to be there. But this is an official government document,” she added.
“I don’t want to come back when I’m not welcome.”
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