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ICE SEVP Guidance: American Dream Turned Into Week-Long Nightmare

Sara was in the kitchen grabbing a midnight snack when she received the news. She clicked on the link in her stepfather’s text message and opened the new US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) guidance on COVID-19: “Nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States.” She lost her appetite and, with a sunken heart, rushed back to her room. She spent a night of tears and insomnia. 

Only last August, Sara had moved to New York with her boyfriend to pursue a master’s degree in curatorial studies at Parsons School of Design. Living at the pandemic’s epicenter in the midst of the global health crisis, far from her family and friends in Colombia, was not easy. Yet, her hopes and dreams of a future filled with opportunity in America were enough to keep her going.

Even when classes became fully online, she thanked her good fortune for being able to continue her courses. One more year and she would be able to seek employment through Optional Practical Training, which allows international students with an F-1 visa to work for up to 12 months in the US after completing their academic studies. Sara hoped to secure a job that would possibly sponsor her stay in the United States in the years to come.

Sara’s boyfriend is a US citizen, as is her mother, and she has spent the previous years living and studying in Miami. She paid tuition, rent, and lived as a legal resident in the country. She could not bring her mind to the idea of having to leave – expelled with no warning or rational explanation. America was her second home. She felt betrayed and heartbroken.

Despite the hardships, Sara tried to remain optimistic. “I was lucky enough to have stayed in the US during the pandemic, I am not sure how the international students who returned home will be able to come back into the country,” she told The College Post. She added, “If the worst-case scenario comes, I am fortunate to have family back in Colombia. I cannot even imagine the situation of others, as might be the case of Venezuelans, with no home left to return to.” 

Response of Parsons School of Design

With international students making up about a third of Parson’s student body, Sara was not the only grief-stricken student to reach out to Parsons School of Design in desperation.

ICE’s press release on July 6 was clear in its modification of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). The US Department of State would refrain from issuing visas for students enrolled in fully online programs and also force active students currently in the United States to either depart the country or transfer to a school with in-person instruction.

Parsons proudly values its international student body from over 116 countries as an essential component of its diverse community. The university immediately issued a message of support: “We are doing everything possible to ensure that all students can continue their programs unimpeded,” the statement read. “We are going to be looking at every possible alternative to support our students in a safe and responsible way.”

In the following days, Parsons continued to publicly express its strong condemnation of the “unjust and cruel rule” proposed by ICE and welcomed comments and suggestions from students and staff. The university partnered with national universities and academic organizations to advocate for the elimination or modification of the ICE guidance. Parsons also joined an amicus brief in support of Harvard and MIT’s lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE.

At the same time, the university prepared for the possibility of the proposed rule being upheld. It set up an emergency task force and developed a hybrid course option to satisfy ICE’s guidance with in-person classes. 

However, with COVID-19 cases still rising throughout the country, Parsons stated, “We hope this option will not be necessary,” recognizing the potential health and safety risks in-person classes might have on its students, faculty, and staff.

International Students Shouldn’t Be Political Pawns

New York Attorney General Letitia James also voiced her opposition to ICE’s guidance. She tweeted that “students should not be used as political pawns by the Trump administration to try to force schools to reopen their doors.”

International students contributed $41 billion to the US economy and supported more than 458,290 jobs during the 2018-2019 academic year, according to NAFSA, a nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. Students from around the world also promote the country’s scientific and technical research by adding international perspectives and help prepare American students for global careers.

Amanda Forment, a master’s student at Parsons who is a US citizen, told The College Post “it is important that international students feel safe, valued, and welcome. We all benefit from the exchange of ideas between people of varied cultural backgrounds. I truly believe in the merits of global education.”

Colleges and universities across the US have had to adapt to the unprecedented global pandemic, prioritizing the health and safety of their community. With the college experience reduced to online classes, most universities were forced to reevaluate their tuition fees and application dates and faced serious difficulties to keep global talent. They cannot risk losing what is left of their international body.

Students have also worked hard to keep motivated and goal-oriented during difficult times. “I’d walk miles every day to assist an in-person class. If that is what it takes to stay here, I’ll do it,” exclaimed Sara.

Reversal of ICE’s Guidance

On July 14, the Trump administration decided to rescind the ICE guidance nationwide. The decision was announced at the start of the hearing for the federal lawsuit brought by Harvard and MIT. The news came as an amazing victory for international students and universities across the country.

While Amanda applauded the outcome, she also worries: “I hope that unstable regulations as such will not dissuade students from deciding to study in the United States in the future.”

Sara finally sighed with relief, awakened from a week-long nightmare.

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