“It just seemed so absurd,” Sarkizova said. “I didn’t really consider it to be true.”
Sarkizova, a fifth-year mathematics/economics student from Bulgaria, is one of many international students who would have been affected by the July 6 modifications to the Department of Homeland Security’s temporary fall exemptions for the Student and Exchange Visitor Program.
Although the federal government rescinded the modifications July 14, many students are still processing the shock that the changes caused.
The modifications required students with an M-1 or F-1 visa who attend schools with plans for a hybrid learning model to take at least one in-person class in the fall, or risk both deportation and the loss of their visa status.
Additionally, international students who attend schools that plan to be fully online in the fall would have had to leave the U.S. or transfer to another college that has in-person classes.
Colleges had less than a month to implement the measures, which would have affected over a million international students nationwide.
Sarkizova said many international students scrambled to navigate through the uncertainty that the changes created. Not only were they struggling to establish fall quarter plans, but they also had to adjust long-term plans, she added.
Studying in the U.S. is a hefty investment for international students and many look to either temporarily work in the U.S. or immigrate permanently after they receive their degrees, said Yavuzhan Zaman, a third-year business economics and history student from Turkey.
With the looming threat of deportation, Zaman added international students may have felt their choice to study in the U.S. would have been wasted if they could not stay in the country afterwards.
The sudden modifications left many international students feeling betrayed, since he felt their plans for the future were put in jeopardy because of the administration’s political agenda, he said.
Unpredictability is a fixture for international students in the country conditionally, said Stella Nguyen, a third-year international development studies student from Vietnam. For Nguyen, everything from jobs to graduate school is contingent on her visa’s constraints, she said.
Most international students arrive in the U.S. thinking that although the experience may be difficult, they will persevere and reap the rewards, said Maria Taraszova, a fourth-year philosophy student from Russia. But in the days following the policy’s change, she said this attitude became increasingly difficult to maintain.
“You feel like you fought all this time and you have so much more to go,” she said. “And there are these people who are actively trying to prevent you from that. That’s absolutely heart wrenching.”
Countering the Changes
Days after ICE announced the modifications, the University of California joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and other higher education institutions in filing lawsuits against the DHS and ICE.
Many of those lawsuits, including the UC’s, sued on grounds that the DHS and ICE failed to follow the Administrative Procedures Act, which governs the internal procedures for administrative agencies like the DHS and ICE.
Under the APA, the DHS and ICE are required to provide a minimum reasoning for the public to understand why the regulation changes happened, said Joseph Berra, a law professor specializing in immigrant rights and international human rights.
After learning that students from other universities petitioned to create in-person classes for international students, Taraszova said she and Sarkizova were inspired to start a similar movement at UCLA.
The pair created a petition calling on the administration to create a series of in-person classes exclusively for international students in order to grant them legal justification to stay in the U.S., Taraszova said. The petition received more than 3,000 signatures.
While many international students were relieved by the policy’s reversal, Zaman said the panic the policy created still lingers and has prevented many international students from feeling completely safe even after its retraction, he added.
“I always thought nothing would happen to international students, but now we learned that can change too,” he said. “For now, there’s always a risk that we might get deported at any time. You never know.”
Though she is grateful for the outcome, Nguyen said she is suspicious why the reversal happened so quickly.
“I can’t help but wonder if universities only fought this hard because it was a financial threat to them,” she said. “The main argument that people were making was that international students contributed a lot to the economy. So I think, even though it was a win, it was kind of bittersweet.”
As things stand now, Lebogang Mooketsi, a third-year financial actuarial mathematics student from Botswana, said she is leaning toward staying in Los Angeles. If she travels back home, she fears another sudden change in U.S. regulations will prevent her from returning to campus, she said.
ICE’s rapid response to public outrage is an example of the power people have, Sarkizova said. The energy should be funneled towards other issues of injustice as well, she added.
“People recognize that this is part of a bigger problem,” she said. “It’s part of an overarching trend in terms of an administration that doesn’t fight (against) the marginalization of communities, but almost perpetuates it.”
Mooketsi said she thinks the surge of universities who pushed back against policies should be applied to other demographics who need support, such as students who are undocumented.
“Universities should take more action … now that we see they are capable of fighting with ICE for students,” Mooketsi said. “They do have more power to help students who find themselves in such positions and they should be using it.”
On a smaller scale, Sarkizova said it was heartwarming to watch the signatures on her and Taraszova’s petition accumulate. The advocacy shows how people can come together for a cause larger than themselves – a reminder of why she chose to study in America, she added.
“Seeing people support each other, even when the cause doesn’t really pertain to them directly, is somewhat empowering,” Sarkizova said. “It brings hope (and) it does bring that sense of belonging … that we came here (for) in the first place.”