The futures of hundreds of thousands of foreign students have been threatened by the Trump administration’s decision to ban them from colleges which have moved their classes exclusively online. Students from nations torn apart by political, social and economic crises could be particularly affected by the sudden move that jeopardises their legal status under F-1student visas.
For them, going home could mean going back to living without basic resources, under oppressive systems, and in many cases even to places where their safety can’t be guaranteed. This is why news of the visa regulation by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement hit these students particularly hard.
Ana, a Venezuelan student at the New School in New York who asked to be identified only by her first name, says her blood pressure dropped as soon as she heard she would be affected by the administration’s move, as her school would be moving classes exclusively online.
“I had a panic attack. My world came crashing down because every year I have been fighting so hard to get my degree, to get these opportunities,” said Ana. The 29-year-old is studying jazz on a nearly-full scholarship and funds the rest of her student life thanks to another scholarship from the the Latin Grammy Foundation, for which she has to compete every year.
The administration’s move feels particularly unjust for students like her, given the lengths they have gone through in their journeys to US universities.
These students have to learn English and figure out the American university system, usually on their own and without many resources. Additionally, many struggle to find the funds to pay fees for tests such as the SATs, as well as college applications, which can cost prospective students as much as $80. Considering that many of them come from countries where minimum wage is less than $20, this alone is a hardship to overcome.
“You have to consider that we didn’t have WI-FI in school, we didn’t have high school advisers like most people do here in America. I had to teach myself these exams,” said Elizabeth Apunda, a rising Junior at Kenyon college in Ohio who learned how to apply to universities on Google, and then worked to raise the money to pay for it.
Even when prospective students manage to fulfil all the requirements and get into schools, they then have to get their visas approved while facing particular scrutiny because of their places of origin, often having to wait months to get a response. Moreover, because the economic situations in these countries are extremely precarious and job opportunities scarce, most students from conflict areas also need to secure their own funding.
“We also need to compete for scholarships or substantial financial aid after competing for admission,’’ said Anas Almassri, from Gaza, who spent two years trying to secure the documents and funding he needed to get to Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service after being admitted.
Being from a conflict area also means these students have no idea where exactly they would be deported to if they’re not allowed to stay, as many of them are from places with broken relations with the US, such as Venezuela and Gaza.
Palestinians from Gaza studying in the US, for example, can’t simply take a flight back home. Most of them have to go through about six countries before making it there, which is why most don’t visit during breaks from school, and the coronavirus pandemic only decreases their available routes.
“No one knows where we would even be deported to,” said Abdullah, a graduate student from Gaza at Stanford university who asked to be identified only by his first name for concerns for his safety.
“We can’t be deported directly to Gaza. Jordan would be the natural route but a lot of countries are closing their doors to flights from the US. Even if we managed to get to Jordan it’s unclear if we could then cross to Gaza. So it’s really uncertain where we would get deported to,” he said.
The same is true for Venezuelan students, as the socialist nation and the US do not currently have any diplomatic ties.
Raul Romero and Daniel DiMartino went to high school together in Caracas, Venezuela, and now face an uncertain future as F-1 visa holders in the US.
Daniel is a big supporter of president Donald Trump, even meeting him in the White House to advocate for Venezuelan democracy, a country the president has paid particular interest to during his presidency.
“It’s unfortunate that the Trump administration is using us, international students, to blackmail universities into taking decisions they don’t want,” he said. “We are being forced to leave only to come back again without any regard for how we can do that safely amid a pandemic or the consequences for our lives like what to do with our belongings or the unsafe conditions that await us at home.”
While Daniel has European citizenship and could go to Spain to join his family if his visa is stripped, Raul faces the reality of going back to Venezuela.
For Raul, whose family had to raise money from their now-gone cheese shop to cover the costs his scholarship didn’t, Trump’s support for Venezuelans has only been verbal.
“We can’t say he fully supports the cause if it only is a matter of bringing down the regime and not supporting the people that are here,” he said.
Aside from how exactly these students would get back home, a common difficulty all of them would face if deported is trying to complete their degrees online from countries with unreliable internet connections.
Ana, from the New School, said it would simply be impossible to get her degree from Venezuela.
“It’s not viable. There’s no water, people are eating once or twice a day, finding food is very difficult… Someone outside of Venezuela may not understand this reality, but for someone like me to go to Venezuela and study online is simply impossible,” she said.
Elizabeth, from Kenyon College, also said internet connection, would be the main issue for her back home in Kenya.
“There’s not a lot of providers at home, even if we do they’re expensive and it would be highly inconvenient. I wouldn’t be able to get through school properly at all,” she said.
In Gaza, where internet connection runs at 2G speed and electricity shortages are a daily occurrence, pursuing a higher degree online would be extremely difficult. Anas, from Georgetown, said he actually knows this because he’s been working on a project with students there.
“It’s a frequent problem for students from Gaza to continue with the project because they don’t have high-quality internet connection,” he said.
For this and other reasons, the Trump administration’s new student visa regulations would be effectively putting some of these students’s higher education on pause, particularly those who rely on on-campus jobs to afford tuition.
“My family can’t afford tuition. For me it would definitely mean a leave of absence if I have to go back to Gaza,” said Abdullah, who like many students from Gaza funds part of his schooling through his work at his university, which he can’t do from his home country.
For Nafeez Ahmed, a molecular student at Kenyon college in Ohio, the most-present concern is not being able to continue his treatment for a mental health disorder that was diagnosed once he arrived in the US. He now worries he won’t be able to continue to treat it if he’s deported back to Bangladesh, where mental health services are extremely limited.
Then there are those foreign students who now face the prospect of how they would get their schoolwork done in a war zone.
“You don’t want the threat of terrorism when you’re trying to do your next economics assignment,” said Abdulrahman, a rising junior at Lewis & Clark university from Kurdistan who asked to keep his last name private for safety reasons.
Because many of these students come from places where civil liberties are limited, speaking out about the situation in their home countries in the US is a freedom they had never known before.
“I honestly love this country. I think it has a lot of freedoms and I’ve been able to use some of these freedoms to the max. Freedom of speech was a relatively new right for me when I got here,” Abdulrahman said.
“The fact that i can do this interview with you and criticize ICE’ guidelines is something that means a lot to me. I think a lot of westerns take that for granted,” he added.
Anas had a similar experience when he arrived in the US from Gaza, where he says he couldn’t fully express himself and didn’t have academic freedom to think and debate. He said he’s spoken out about this during his time abroad, which could risk his safety back in Gaza.
“All of these common things that we think of as common civil liberties and academic rights are things that I have learned to appreciate in my time abroad,” he added.
For Venezuelan students who have engaged in activism in the US, going back home also represents a threat.
“It’s certainly putting me at risk,” said Raul, who has been an active voice against the Nicolas Maduro regime since arriving in the US. “It could cost me jail. I’m certainly at risk as is anyone who’s vocal against the regime.”