'In survival mode': International students scramble after Trump's visa announcement

"We are being looked at like a package, just being shipped around from here to there," one student said.
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Students walk near Widener Library in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on Aug. 13.Charles Krupa / AP file

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By Sakshi Venkatraman

Priyankaa Krishnan, a 23-year-old international student at Iowa State University, is worried she'll have to return to a country she barely knows. She was born in India, but hasn't been back since she was a child and doesn't have immediate family there.

Krishnan, who's getting her Ph.D. in education and human-computer interaction, is one of 1.1 million international students across the U.S. affected by a new order issued by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement that says international students on F-1 visas must depart the U.S. if their colleges or universities are being conducted solely online. The students, the majority of whom come from India and China, have the option of transferring to a college or university holding in-person classes before the start of the fall semester.

Priyankaa Krishnan.Courtesy Priyankaa Krishnan

The order makes exceptions only for colleges with hybrid learning models, and it has enraged students and faculty at institutions across the country

“It’s going to be hard for me because my parents live in the UAE but UAE hasn’t opened all its borders,” Krishnan said.

On Wednesday, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both of which will be completely online this fall, sued the Trump administration for what they claim is a direct attack on universities that have opted to keep their campuses closed for health purposes.

“The effect — and perhaps even the goal — is to create as much chaos for universities and international students as possible,” the lawsuit said

Some universities have vowed to create a one-credit, in-person class for international students so they can remain in the country, but thousands are still left to contend with the possibility that these months in the United States might be their last for a while.

Krishnan has been in the country six years and still has four years left to complete her Ph.D. Should she be forced to leave, she says her only option would be to return to India, which would entail a big cultural and lifestyle shift.

“I have family, but not super close,” she said. "I haven’t lived in India since I was like 5 years old. I don’t know how to take care of myself in India.”

Vrinda Vrinda, 23, is a master's student at SUNY Plattsburg studying to be a therapist.Courtesy Vrinda Vrinda

“We are being looked at like a package, just being shipped around from here to there,” said Vrinda Vrinda, a master’s student in psychology at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh. Vrinda, who is from Dubai, said her status has caused her problems throughout her schooling and employment in the U.S. “If someone has to think about, ‘Am I going to be on this continent or this continent in the next two months?' they’re not focusing on their education. They’re literally in survival mode.”

Even for those, like Vrinda, whose universities are supporting them to see the semester through, an increasingly hostile immigration policy might prevent them from entering the workforce. The announcement from ICE on Monday followed an executive order last month freezing visas for foreign workers through the end of the year.

“Because companies know that somewhere down the line they would have to sponsor a person, they don’t want to get into that in the first place,” Vrinda said. “I was offered a job as a therapist, and just today it was rescinded because of this.”

A 22-year-old international student from Vietnam, who is a senior studying psychology and political science at a large university in Southern California, says he is also at risk for deportation if he can’t find an in-person class to enroll in. He recalled the intense panic he felt when he first got news of the order.

“I thought I must have been misreading it,” said the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of repercussions from going public. “It feels so malicious and I’m not sure what the reasoning behind it was. I went through total whiplash. I was confused and worried.”

He is studying psychology and political science and says the only in-person classes that his school offers are for labs, studios and art classes that don’t correlate with his major. In the event he has to stay in Vietnam for the fall semester, he’s not sure he could perform to the best of his ability.

“A 10 a.m. lecture could be equivalent to a midnight lecture or a 2 a.m. lecture,” he said.

Krishnan also cited time zone issues as a reason why being forced to take classes from India might be impossible.

“If I can message my professor and get a response from her in five minutes, that makes a bigger difference than sitting in India at 2 a.m. in the morning to watch my lectures,” she said.

Students describe the policy as “malicious” and cite the mass exodus of students as a huge health risk.

Other countries have taken advantage of the U.S. turn away highly skilled immigrants. According to the New American Economy, a nonprofit immigration research organization, both Canada and the United Kingdom have simplified visa processes to attract international students and give them the opportunity to work after graduation.

Though the order might put her at risk, Krishnan says she hopes colleges and universities in the U.S. will continue to hold classes online, or offer a hybrid of online and in-person, to prevent students from getting the coronavirus.

For Vrinda, the government crackdown has changed the way she now views her time in the United States.

“This is really hard for me to say because I’ve had so many positive experiences here," Vrinda said, "but I would not recommend a student from overseas to come to the U.S.”