5C international students respond to new ICE immigration rules

A square, tan building that reads "INTERNATIONAL PLACE." There are concrete stairs in font, and a concrete ramp. A blue banner on the guardrail of the ramp reads "INTERNATIONAL PLACE OF THE CLAREMONT COLLEGES: 390 EAST NINTH STREET, CLAREMONT, CA 9171" and features a globe logo.
International students are searching for next steps after an ICE decision made July 6. (Kyle Grace • The Student Life)

Announcements from Pomona College and Scripps College that classes will be fully online for the fall 2020 semester came two days after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s policy change barring international students taking all-online classes from staying in the U.S., a blow that left 5C international students unsure of next steps.

The presidents of the Claremont Colleges are exploring consortial options to allow international students to continue their studies in person or online, Scripps College spokesperson Rachael Warecki SC ’08 said via email. As students await updates, some are calling on their institutions to take action.

While classes at Scripps and Pomona will be fully online, Harvey Mudd College plans to bring its students back in a hybrid format, if conditions are safe and public health guidance permits. Claremont McKenna College is making similar plans but has delayed its final decision until July 24 at the latest. Pitzer College likewise delayed announcing any final decision until later this month.

International students speak out against ICE ruling  

Kirtana Sendyl SC ’21, co-head of the Scripps International Community, is stuck in limbo. Without a clear solution to avoiding an online-only curriculum, Scripps’ decision to hold all classes online could force her to return to India — but India has suspended all international travel until July 31.

“I essentially will be stranded and would not be legally allowed to stay in the U.S., but would have no way of entering my home country,” she said.

ICE’s announcement affects international students’ ability to maintain active SEVIS status: a status in the Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System that conveys a student is following F-1 visa guidelines by continuing their studies in the U.S. The change now stipulates that international students at schools with in-person classes must attend at least one class in person to maintain active SEVIS status and stay in the U.S. 

“When we travel, we already risk catching the virus. On campus there are so many precautions to be careful of not catching the virus — then why are you asking international students to take so many risks? — Gunn Phikrohkit PZ ’22

International students also face employment-related obstacles. They must be enrolled as a full-time student for one full academic year to apply for Optional Practical Training — an extension of F-1 visas — that allow graduated international students to complete internships or jobs in the U.S. either during or after college for up to one or three years. If rising seniors cannot study in the U.S. and complete their fall 2020 coursework, they will not be eligible to apply for OPT.

Similarly, first-year international students have to be enrolled for at least one academic year in order to become eligible for Curricular Practical Training, which allows them to participate in internships in the U.S.

Kripesh Ranabhat PZ ’22, an international student from Nepal, said the update and its implications “would be a huge problem.” Even if international students leave the U.S. and take all their classes online, reapplying for a visa would pose an additional burden, he said.

“Refill the application, pay the $300 and go do an interview at the U.S. consulate,” Ranabhat said. “And no one knows when the appointments are going to be back up. There are no appointments right now, the consulates have freezed all visa-related activity.”

The new rules also state that “only students enrolled at a school that is only offering online coursework can engage in remote learning from their home country.” 

This means that if a school holds hybrid classes, a student must return to the U.S. to maintain their active SEVIS status. If a student enrolled in a hybrid-plan college remains in their home country, they will lose active SEVIS status, causing them to lose the ability to live in the U.S. for a year or two years after graduation while applying for work. 

ICE may also remove students in the U.S. if they lose active SEVIS status by not taking in-person classes. The State Department will also not issue new visas to students whose schools are entirely online, the announcement said. 

At Mudd and CMC, where some classes may be in person for the fall semester, students worry about traveling to the U.S. and the possibility of outbreaks when they return on campus. 

Students must show they aren’t “taking an entirely online course load for the fall 2020 semester” to keep their visa — and if HMC, CMC or Pitzer hold in-person classes, students would need to to travel back to Claremont to maintain SEVIS status, facing possible health risks. 

Gunn Phikrohkit PZ ’22, an international student from Thailand, is concerned that forcing international students to travel back to campus could expose them to COVID-19 and make them “super spreaders” of the disease.

“When we travel, we already risk catching the virus. On campus there are so many precautions to be careful of not catching the virus — then why are you asking international students to take so many risks?” he said.

The quarantine rules and travel restrictions also pose a challenge for international students from certain countries.

“Students who are in China, Europe [Schengen area], Iran, UK, Ireland and Brazil are denied from entering the U.S. unless they have stayed 14 days elsewhere before they enter the U.S. — so international students from China, if they want to enter the U.S., have to fly and stay in another country for 14 days before they can fly to the U.S,” Phikrohkit said.

Sendyl acknowledges that colleges are in limbo as well — going online jeopardizes international students, but holding in-person class poses major health risks amid a worsening pandemic. 

“Going completely online hurts a lot of students, but also going hybrid hurts a lot of students. And I think that is where the frustration comes from with this policy. It’s not equitable, it’s not safe, it’s contradictory in some places,” Sendyl said.

Sendyl said she would prefer ICE extend its past policy — which allowed students to keep their visas after colleges went online in spring — but hopes the 5Cs take action in the meantime. 

“I hope that the Claremont Colleges would work together to develop a solution for international students,” she said. “Considering that not all colleges are going completely online, there are options that exist to be able to accommodate students whose colleges are going completely online.”

7C students organize

In response to the recent announcement, a group of 7C students created Claremont Can Stay, a grassroots group which is “advocating for the guaranteed safety and opportunities of international students,” according to its Facebook page.

“Going completely online hurts a lot of students, but also going hybrid hurts a lot of students. And I think that is where the frustration comes from with this policy. It’s not equitable, it’s not safe, it’s contradictory in some places” — Kirtana Sendyl SC ’21.

The group, which could not be immediately reached for comment, also requests that Pomona allow international students to “continue their education locally,” according to an email template offered by the group. In another email template, the group requests that Pitzer “proactively” develop a hybrid model in response to the new visa policy. 

The group is also featuring anonymous stories submitted by international students on its Instagram account, Twitter account and Facebook page. Many of the posts reference travel restrictions imposed by students’ home countries that prevent them from returning home, and others discuss circumstances that will make remote learning difficult from outside the U.S. One Scripps student wrote, “I have to leave the US and I have nowhere to go.”

Presidents promise action

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday morning against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, Harvard and MIT requested a temporary restraining order preventing the enforcement of the policy. They also asked that the policy be vacated and deemed unlawful. Many more colleges and universities have since signed amicus briefs denouncing the policy, including Stanford, USC, Princeton and Williams College

Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr told students in a town hall Wednesday that the college would also take legal action against the policy, citing a future “formal challenge.” A Pomona spokesperson said in an email to TSL that the college is “still evaluating potential options” for international students, and will be reaching out and offering updates to affected students in the coming days.

In an interview with CNN on Thursday, Starr said that Pomona “may need to offer some courses on campus” for international students. She also noted that the college is looking to partner with other institutions and offer international students the opportunity “to study abroad for a semester at an institution nearby.”

While Pitzer President Melvin Oliver didn’t similarly commit to legal action in an email sent to students Wednesday, he said the policy change was “at direct odds with our core values.” He also noted that he’s working with the other Claremont Colleges to develop “a collaborative solution for our international students.”

A Scripps spokesperson said in an email to TSL that the college is “deeply troubled” by the revised visa policy and noted that the Claremont Colleges’ presidents, academic deans and student deans are “collaborating to explore a consortial solution that allows international students maximum flexibility to choose whether to pursue their studies in-person or online.”

Spokespersons for Claremont McKenna and Harvey Mudd did not respond to a request for comment. 

Siena Swift contributed to this story.

This article was last updated July 10, 2020 at 12:33 p.m.

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