Georgetown University international students are reckoning with a new phase of uncertainty after the Department of Homeland Security introduced new regulations Monday limiting international students’ ability to live and study in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students on M-1 or F-1 visas studying at institutions that only offer online instruction for the fall 2020 semester are required to leave the country or transfer to an institution that offers in-person courses, according to new federal guidelines published by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on July 6. The guidelines allow students on F-1 visas to take a hybrid course load — consisting of in-person and virtual classes — so long as universities certify students are taking the minimum number of online courses to “make normal progress” in their degree.
Currently, 3,147 international students are enrolled at Georgetown either with an F-1 or J-1 visa, and the school’s hybrid reopening plan does not make immediately clear whether F-1 students will be able to remain in the United States.
The new risk of deportation for international students at Georgetown has prompted confusion and anxiety among international students living in the United States, launching their already uncertain fall plans into further jeopardy.
Murphy Lu (COL ’21) was unable to return to her home country of China when classes moved online in March because of a series of travel restrictions. She planned on residing on campus in the fall. Since DHS’s announcement, however, Lu and her family have scrambled to find potential flights out of the country.
“We’ve been trying to find flights that have a stopover in Europe or somewhere or in Ethiopia because we heard that those tickets are easier to find on the market,” Lu said in an interview with The Hoya. “As the saying goes, ‘As long as we can get a ticket of which the destination is a city in China, it doesn’t matter where it departs.’ We’re that desperate.”
Lu fears many of the classes she must take to graduate may not be offered in an in-person format.
“I do have to make another plan if I can’t find a ticket to go back home. In that case, I would have to register for an in-person class in order to legally stay in this country, but I’m not sure if any of the courses that I have to take to graduate offers in-person class,” Lu said in an interview with The Hoya. “If it doesn’t, I would have to figure out how to register for one, but that’s tricky. Because what if I don’t need that class to graduate? I would have to waste almost $10,000 on that and I don’t think that’s fair for us.”
Though the Trump administration has implemented numerous policies detrimental to international students, the latest DHS guidance is especially unforgiving, according to Lu.
“I think it’s a little bit too harsh given that they don’t really consider our situations. It’s not like it’s our choice to stay,” Lu said. “It’s more like we have to stay because we can’t find a way to leave.”
Rhodia Eid (SFS ’22) has also been stuck on campus since March. Unable to return to her family in Lebanon, Eid has spent months living alone, shifting between dorms on campus. The looming new uncertainty has compounded months of previous unease, according to Eid.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” Eid said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “My parents are really nervous about that. They talked to my uncle, who is in France, just in case anything happens, but they’re just hoping for the best. They have been worrying since February, so I think they got used to it now.”
In response to the new DHS guidelines, Georgetown students began circulating a petition demanding the university immediately take action to protect its international students. The petition has garnered 1,759 signatures from faculty, students and organizations at time of publication.
The petition requested that the university provide sufficient in-person classes for those students at risk of deportation and a school-backed response condemning the ICE guidelines, among other requests. The university is morally obligated to support its international students, according to petitioners.
“This cruel move has no legitimate basis in public health or national security, and is solely designed to target international students who are peacefully contributing to their campus communities,” the petition reads. “Georgetown has a moral obligation to its students and community to legally work around the new ICE rules in whatever ways possible.”
International students also drafted an open letter currently with 113 student signatures advocating for similar protections, including maintaining students’ F-1 visa status during online learning. Students currently living outside of the U.S. may face challenges in returning to the country to maintain that visa status, according to Wendy Xia (SFS ’22), who helped draft the letter.
“Since Georgetown has announced a hybrid model (though the definition of that is unclear), internationals in their home countries (or a third country) could be forced to return to the US to maintain their F-1 status,” she wrote in a message to The Hoya. “We need more clarity on so many fronts, including support for the majority of internationals, who have been in the dark since they boarded a flight home.”
University President John J. DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) announced July 8 that Georgetown would join other universities in submitting an amicus brief in federal court protesting the DHS guidance. Georgetown’s undergraduate and graduate programs are working to increase the number of in-person course offerings to help international students satisfy their visa requirements, DeGioia added.
“Our University strongly opposes this reckless action. It creates new and unnecessary barriers for international students and puts their health, stability, and academic progress at risk if they are unable to participate in classes in-person,” DeGioia wrote in an email to students. “The new requirements fail to recognize the invaluable contributions of our international students within our community and the impacts of this abrupt change during an ongoing pandemic.”
Faculty in the School of Foreign Service plan to offer in-person class options to all eligible undergraduate and graduate international students so they can maintain their visa status, SFS Dean Joel Hellman wrote in an email to students.
Lise Howard, an associate professor of government and international relations, tweeted that she would hold in-person classes that fulfill the new on-campus requirements for international students in the fall semester. Howard said she wanted to support her international students in part because of her own experiences studying abroad.
“I benefited from study abroad programs in seven different countries when I was a student,” Howard wrote in an email to The Hoya. “It is only reasonable that even under conditions of COVID, the United States would welcome and protect foreign students as a matter of solidarity in these hard times, and in order to ensure that American students will continue to have the opportunity of studying abroad in the future.”
Howard believes that the university will support her plan to create a small class and said she and other teachers are working with the university to officially create new classes.
”It goes without saying that foreign students, researchers, and faculty enrich the learning and research environment in the U.S.,” Howard wrote. “Many of us [faculty] have agreed to do whatever we can to ensure continuity of learning for all of our students, and we fully expect university support.”
After graduating, Lu planned on working in the United States, a country she had once admired for its power and influence in the world. After observing the government’s jumbled pandemic response and hostile attitude towards international students, Lu feels like she must reevaluate her next steps.
“Since my home country doesn’t welcome me and America doesn’t seem to have a control of what is going on, I really want to take my career somewhere else and probably move to somewhere else,” Lu said. “[The U.S.] is a country that only cares about itself and it’s not what I envisioned as the greatest country to be. If that’s the direction this country is going to, I probably have to reevaluate my future plans.”
Hoya Staff Writers Doris Zhang and Jaime Moore-Carrillo contributed reporting.