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ICE Threatens To Deport International Students If They Don't Attend In-Person Classes


This fall, international students at U.S. colleges and universities will need to take at least one class in person to receive a student visa or re-enter the country. That is according to a new rule from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The rule forces a difficult choice on tens of thousands of students. From member station WBUR in Boston, Max Larkin reports.

MAX LARKIN, BYLINE: As an international student, Simgeh Topaloglu says she and her friends have gotten used to the uncertainty of studying in the U.S. during the Trump administration.

SIMGEH TOPALOGLU: Sometimes, someone hears something through the grapevine. Like, a friend of mine said this. Maybe this is going to happen.

LARKIN: Topaloglu, born in Turkey, is now a third-year doctoral student in psychology at Harvard. She's here on an F-1 student visa and says Monday's press release from ICE left her incredulous.

TOPALOGLU: When this was first shared in a group chat, I just thought that someone had misinterpreted it. but then I read the statement, and I couldn't believe my eyes.

LARKIN: In the spring, as coronavirus closed many campuses, students were permitted to do all of their coursework online without violating the terms of their visas. According to ICE's new guidelines, student visas will now depend on doing at least some learning in person. But Harvard is one of a number of schools that don't plan to offer in-person instruction.

At home in Istanbul, Topaloglu would live with an elderly relative with a medical condition that would make learning, teaching, conducting research nearly impossible. She's one of 8,800 students on visas at Harvard. There are nearly 400,000 nationwide. And even at schools that will offer in-person learning, like Northeastern University, the new rule seems to pose an impossible choice for international students.

SMIT KIRI: I just feel that it's really unfair that we have to risk our lives and go to the university even if we are, you know, at a higher risk of contracting the virus or dying from it.

LARKIN: That's Smit Kiri, a second-year student in a master's program in data science at Northeastern. Born in Gujarat, he's been staying with family in Tennessee since the pandemic began. Kiri has asthma, and he's dreading a legal obligation to get back into the classroom. Still, he doesn't regret signing up for the program.

KIRI: It was my dream to come to the U.S. to study this. It's really high-quality education than the one that I could find at any university in India.

LARKIN: American universities increasingly depend on international students to build rich, global classrooms and to collect tuition. So colleges are already vowing to push back against the rule. That could mean redrawing their plans for fall or challenging it in court. Aaron Reichlin-Melnik, an attorney for the American Immigration Council, an advocacy group, says the rule isn't yet set in stone. But even if litigation alters the rule, damage has already been done.

AARON REICHLIN-MELNIK: All of this will of course be of a major benefit to Canada and other countries that have long competed with the United States for foreign students. And the downsides, of course, will be huge for local economies, for universities and for America's really powerful position as a world leader in education.

LARKIN: American colleges have been working for years to build up international enrolments. Now, with wave after wave of anxious moments for students, those enrollments are at risk of being washed away.

For NPR News, I'm Max Larkin.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOLLOWED BY GHOSTS' "A NEW DAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Max Larkin (WBUR)