US visa rule leaves Nepali students in a lurch

The sudden announcement by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Monday that international students will not be issued visas if they are enrolled in schools that are fully online has left thousands of students from Nepal in a lurch.

The directive said students already enrolled in such schools or programs must leave, or take measures such as transferring to schools with (partial or complete) in-person instruction to maintain their visas. Failure to comply will result in deportation, the ICE warned.

Between 2017 and 2018, the number of Nepali students studying in the US rose by 14.3%, the highest growth among international students studying in the US during this period. In 2019, over 13,000 Nepali students were enrolled in colleges and universities across the US.

Currently, one-third of all college students in the United States take at least one class online. About 10% of US colleges and universities are planning to operate fully online, including Harvard University which is only conducting online classes, even for students already on campus.

About 10,000 Nepali students may be affected by this rule. No one interviewed online for this report wanted their names revealed.

One Nepali student at Mount Holyoke college in Massachusetts said she must return to Nepal as her college is holding only online classes, but Nepal is under lockdown and not yet open for regular international flights.

She says, "There are no flights and even charters are ridiculously expensive and hard to book. And I have to test for COVID-19, which is so hard to access in the US unless you are actually very sick. By travelling, I am risking exposure to myself and my entire family."

Only students enrolled in universities and training programs with in-person instruction or hybrid programs will receive or be able to maintain their visas as long as they take only ‘one class or three credit hours online’, the ICE announcement said.

Another Nepali student at Penn State University has opted to learn remotely even though PSU is offering in-person instruction. She explains, "If COVID-19 cases spike and my university switches to online operation, I might get deported. This new policy adds to the uncertainty and panic international students were already feeling about their academic plans and visa status."

A stable option seems to be hybrid instruction -- a mix of in-person and online classes. ICE will allow students to keep their student visas as long as they are ‘not taking an entirely online course load’ and are making ‘normal progress in their degree program’.

This would allow US colleges and universities to primarily operate online and halt the spread of COVID-19 while being in-person on surface, therefore retaining international students.

However, many Nepali students that Nepali Times contacted are doubtful about hybrid instruction as well.

A student at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania says, "I'm on an F-1 visa so this impacts me directly. I might have to leave the US if Dickinson switches to remote learning. I was planning on applying to grad school but this throws everything up in the air."

ICE's announcement arrives shortly after H1-B visas were suspended, barring hundreds of thousands of foreigners from working in the US. This suspension gravely affected Nepalis, the fifth largest foreign community to receive H1-B visas between 2012 and 2018.

The general anti-immigrant rhetoric adopted by the Trump administration was already making Nepali students wary of the United States, and many now say they may be applying to European or Australian universities.

A Nepali PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania says: "The immigration process in the US is very confusing, and the communication has been awfully inconsiderate. International students and scholars aren't seen as people with dreams and goals, but rather as some remote entity that the government can just slap any rule on as they wish."

At Colorado State University, another Nepali student is also outraged: "I am appalled by how oblivious these rules and regulations are to the fact that we're living through a pandemic and many students don't have any means of getting back home."

Reports in the media with international students from other countries also show that the ICE's new rules have forced them to reappraise their plans to study in the United States. Reports have said that this will ultimately hurt American universities.

International students contributed an estimated $45 billion to the US economy in 2018-2019, and the ICE’s new announcement directly contradicts efforts by American colleges to attract international students.

A Nepali Master’s student at the University of Massachusetts Lowell summed up the mood: "I should have gone to Australia rather than come to a country that clearly doesn't want me."