Editor’s Note, 7/14, 3:30 p.m.: The Trump administration rescinded this order a couple hours after this story was published.
When the University of North Texas shut down due to COVID-19 this spring, Andrej Najdovski transitioned to a full online course load. He could no longer work in one of the school’s cafeterias. Like many international students, the sophomore didn’t return home to North Macedonia for the summer; the country was also suffering as the pandemic swept across Europe. Multiple members of Najdovski’s family tested positive for COVID-19.
Najdovski split rent with a friend for the summer and waited for the fall semester to begin. Texas has since become an epicenter for the virus. Then, on July 6, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement threatened to deport international students on F-1 visas, like Najdovski, should their universities remain online only this fall.
Dallas-Fort Worth Area universities including the University of North Texas, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Texas at Dallas had all adopted a hybrid structure with both in-person and online classes before ICE issued the statement. These decisions were informed by massive financial losses from the pandemic and the possibility of students not wanting to return to online learning. Now, they must weigh another factor: if they choose to transition all classes online, their international students will be deported or transfer.
“There’s a lot of revenue to universities that’s based on international students,” said Dr. Caroline Brettell, a professor of anthropology at SMU who studies immigration. “And I read [the announcement] as just because we have a president who doesn’t care about people’s health and just wants to open the schools and open the universities, [he] is using this as a sledgehammer and it is another example of sacrificing people’s health and their lives for some political purpose.”
While F-1 visas normally require students to attend in-person classes, ICE waived that requirement when schools moved online in the spring as the pandemic began. The revised guidelines from ICE don’t provide an explanation for not extending the previous suspension.
“We were honestly expecting that the same thing was going to be extended for the fall since the pandemic is still occurring and, if anything, has gotten a little bit worse in the state of Texas,” said Dr. Juan Gonzalez, the Dean of Graduate Education at UTD who also oversees the International Student Services Office. “So we were really surprised by this resolution; it sort of made us retract, reanalyze what we are going to do in the fall.
Najdovski is concerned about the potential health consequences of attending in-person classes since his family has been sick with COVID-19.
“I’d rather be healthy than be in a classroom,” Najdovski said. “I really don’t want anyone to go through it because I know what my family has gone through. It’s not an easy thing to test positive. It’s a disease; it’s a virus. I don’t want a lot of students going through that.”
UNT President Neal Smatresk condemned the federal guidelines in a notice on July 10. The university is working with international students on a case-by-case basis to fulfill in-person requirements.
“I think that the decision to tell students who can’t take a face-to-face class in the event of a catastrophic rise in cases here in North Texas is heartless and I don’t support it and I don’t know any academician who does,” Smatresk said “We have a commitment to our international students. That thought of trying to send them home in the midst of a COVID surge is not reasonable and not well thought-through.”
SMU is adopting a similar reopening approach to UNT and will allow international students a mix of in-person and online classes to fulfill the necessary requirements. Both universities have over 2,000 international students.
With around 9,000 international students, UTD has the largest population of international students of any college in Texas and the 12th largest in the country. On July 7, UTD President Richard Benson issued a statement that promised the university would “do everything possible to help each student remain on track with their studies and to ensure each student graduates from UT Dallas.”
Through UTD’s hybrid approach, students can choose whether to attend in-person or online classes. Under the new regulations, international students are required to take at least one in-person class or risk deportation. Due to the high number of international students on campus, this means more students will attend in-person classes and complicate social distancing measures.
Another concern for UTD is the roughly 3,000 incoming international students who have already been admitted but are currently in their home countries. U.S. consulates are not issuing visas right now, meaning new students cannot access the paperwork necessary to study here. Since the U.S. has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, many countries have also banned travel to the U.S.
“It is hard to try to estimate how many of those students actually will join us in the fall,” Gonzalez said. “If I’m honest with you, I think there will be a decrease in the number of students that normally join us on a typical fall, but we’re very hopeful that we will have a very healthy cohort of international students coming in in the fall virtually. And our hope is that the situation will change and they will be able to join us physically in the spring.”
Zeeshan Desai, a graduate student from India at UTD, won’t be affected by the ICE order much, aside from less flexibility in choosing online learning, due to UTD’s approach. He says he isn’t worried about the increased risk of contracting COVID-19 in a classroom setting because he’s young and healthy. He is more concerned about the message ICE is sending.
“These students don’t just contribute to the United States monetarily,” Desai said. “They also give their time, their talent, and their resources as a human to the United States. And this creates unnecessary xenophobia.”
ICE has not detailed a contingency plan for international students if the continued rise in cases were to result in another full transition to remote learning.
“These students are part of our fabric,” Gonzalez said. “They do research. They create knowledge. They help us teach our students, but even more than that they add diversity to our campus. They bring new ideas. They participate actively in student activities and cultural activities. We are a better institution because of these students and, as a result, they are a very very important part of our student body and we immediately jumped into action to make sure that they’re going to be taken care of and that they will be able to make academic progress safely.”