WSU officials, students speak out against international student immigration policy

WSU administration planning for live interaction to keep students in country if university goes completely online



International students should reach out to WSU’s Office of International Programs if they are concerned about returning to in-person learning.

CHERYL AARNIO, Evergreen reporter

International students will not be able to stay in the country if they do not take at least one in-person course in fall 2020, according to a statement by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, part of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

WSU will be following a hybrid model this fall, so as long as WSU international students are enrolled in one in-person course for the entire semester, they will be able to stay in the U.S.

On July 8, an email from WSU President Kirk Schulz and Mary Jo Gonzales, vice president of Student Affairs, called the policies “unjust and damaging” while expressing support for international students.

The email stated ICE’s decision “threatens the academic work of more than 2,100 students across the WSU system.” It also stated that WSU reestablished a fund called the International Student and Scholar Emergency Aid Fund, which provides money to international Cougs for necessities like housing, medical care and food. 

“Normally, an international student who is on a visa is required to take coursework that is face-to-face, and each term they are only allowed to take one distance-delivery or online course,” said Kate Hellmann, director of International Student and Scholar Services in WSU’s Office of International Programs. 

SEVP changed its guidelines for spring and summer terms to allow international students to study in the U.S. while taking online courses because most universities taught online due to COVID-19, Hellmann said.

In the fall, WSU will follow a hybrid model of both face-to-face and online instruction. International students must be enrolled in a combination of face-to-face and online classes, she said.

Universities that are doing in-person instruction will operate under normal SEVP guidance, so international students will be allowed to take only one online course at those institutions, Hellmann said. For universities that are entirely online next semester, international students will have to go to their home country or find another university that offers some face-to-face instruction.

This new guidance affects students with an F-1 visa, which most international students at WSU have, Hellmann said.

During the spring semester, there were 2,153 international students in the WSU system who came from 113 countries, she said.

The day after ICE announced its guidance, WSU sent messages to international students and academic advisers to assure compliance with the guidelines, Hellmann said.

Rachel Wong, GPSA programming chair and international student, said the new guidance from ICE triggered her anxiety and caused her a lot of stress.

She saw the news when she woke up in the middle of the night and could not go back to sleep because of how stressed she was. She knows WSU could move entirely online and that affects whether she is able to stay in the U.S., she said. 

“Living with that uncertainty is just very stressful, and it makes it hard to remain productive as a grad student,” Wong said.

The day after ICE guidelines were released, WSU scheduled an international program town hall for international students. Administrators explained the guidelines and told students to schedule a meeting with their international program adviser for help, she said. 

Wong said she scheduled a meeting with her adviser because she was outside of the country. She found WSU to be helpful during this time.

“Right now, the university is still planning for its instruction and which pieces will be live, which pieces will be remote,” Hellmann said. “So actually, this guidance, although challenging, did come out at a time when we, the university, have sufficient opportunity to make some shifts as needed.”

WSU may be forced to change to all-online classes during the fall semester. Even if this happens, WSU will find ways for live interaction for international students, so they will not be deported, Hellmann said. WSU is still looking into how that can be achieved.

“We recognize the contributions that [international students] make in the classroom to bring diverse perspectives,” Hellmann said. “We understand that what they’re sharing with us goes far beyond culture, and so to cause additional anxiety and uncertainty during this already challenging time is very sad.”

ASWSU President Curtis Cohen said the decision is an attack on international students. 

“I think that the new policy is very inconsiderate of international students all over the country,” he said. “I’m pretty disappointed to see that happen.”

He signed a petition to have WSU offer a one-credit course for international students. Cohen said if WSU offered a class like that, the university would be doing the bare minimum to help international students and make sure they are not deported.

Lili Bahrami, a recent WSU alumna, started the petition when she saw students at the University of Washington petitioning to implement a one-credit class for international students.

She said she wanted to try to make a difference in her community. She hopes her petition inspires people from other universities to start their own petitions.

Bahrami said she was astonished that within 48 hours, the petition had racked up over 2,500 signatures. As of 5 p.m. on July 12, 3,861 people had signed the petition.

She said she realizes that a one-credit course may not fulfill the F-1 visa requirements to stay in the U.S.

“It’s just important that WSU sees that we want a specific course provided so that it ensures that F-1 visa requirements are met,” Bahrami said.

She said her parents came to the country on U.S. visas, and she has friends who are international students at WSU.

“People, they want to sit here and say, ‘Well, international students, they contribute to the economy,’” Bahrami said, “but besides that, international students are human. They came, and a lot of them, they left their home countries, and they don’t have anything to go back to.”

Many international students at WSU think of Pullman as their home now, she said.

Wong said she also realizes that not every international student is in her position. She has a five-year visa with reentry to the U.S. Her home country, Singapore, is a stable country where she can easily access the internet and work, if need be. If many international students are sent back to their home country, it could be a huge disruption to their education.

“If WSU could take some sort of tangible action against this and really try to reverse this new provision while also defending international students and adding that one-credit course [from the petition], I think that would be great to implement,” Cohen said.

Two universities that are trying to reverse the guidance are Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They are suing the Trump Administration.

The lawsuit states that both universities chose to have mostly online courses, and many students cannot transfer at this point in time to other universities with face-to-face instruction. For universities that chose to go completely online, it is a health concern to try to provide in-person instruction with only weeks before the semester starts.

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

Gov. Jay Inslee is opposed to the ICE guidelines, stating it is a “typically xenophobic and racist act by the administration.” He said it means universities are incentivized to offer in-person instruction, even if it is dangerous due to the pandemic. He said the government is making plans so colleges can hold face-to-face courses while ensuring safety.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is suing the Trump Administration. The lawsuit states that the directive violates the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs how federal agencies can create and enforce regulations.

The lawsuit states the guidance does not show ICE thought about the health of faculty, staff, students or communities. It also states ICE did not consider that universities expected international students to be allowed to continue their studies online throughout the pandemic.

Worker Visa Restrictions

Additionally, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on June 22 that blocks certain visas, including the H-1B visa and other worker visas. The executive order expires Dec. 31 but can be extended. 

People with those visas are not able to enter the U.S., Hellmann said.

“As a result, we have two faculty members that are outside of the United States that were scheduled to start their WSU faculty appointments this fall but are unable to get here,” Hellmann said.

That directly impacts the students who would have worked with them this fall, she said. Certain private industries also employ people with those visas.

Edmund Schweitzer III, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories President, published a letter to Trump on June 23 following the executive order, urging him to “reverse course.”

The letter states the executive order affects SEL because the company employs people from around the world who are in the U.S. on visas or who have green cards.

The letter states, “We often prefer to bring excellent folks to the United States, where they will contribute to our society in many ways; rather than employing them outside our country.”

One reason for the executive order was due to the loss of jobs held by U.S. workers during the pandemic, according to the order. It states “the entry of additional workers through the H-1B, H-2B, J, and L nonimmigrant visa programs, therefore, presents a significant threat to employment opportunities for Americans.”

When companies hire a foreign-born national, they must have already tried to hire an American because Americans get preferential treatment, Hellmann said. 

In a WSU Insider article, WSU said it is advocating for international scholars by working with members of Congress.