international students at CCSF may not be able to stay on
CCSF instructors at City College San Francisco, Mission Campus. Taken August 20, 2015.

International students reacted with disbelief to the news Monday that they would lose their student visas and must leave the United States if universities stay entirely online.

“I’m just frustrated. I’m shocked,” said Bonnie Law, a student from Hong Kong who settled in the Sunset District while attending San Francisco State University. “I never thought that they would do this to us.”

On July 6, the federal Student Visitor and Exchange Program, which is run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), announced that  international students with full online course loads will lose their student visas and colleges must report by July 15 if they will use online only instruction.

Garima Verma, an Indian economics student at the University of California at Berkeley, said she was eating dinner with her brother when she heard the news. 

“I feel like I have a weird sense of humor, so when I read it, I started laughing,” Verma said. “I said, ‘Of course this would happen at this point in time.’” 

California has more than 160,000 international students who pay about $6 billion in tuition; the majority of these students attend University of California schools, according to the International Institute of Education

The University of California system announced today that it would file a lawsuit over the stipulation. Several other universities did so yesterday, including Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Southern California. 

International students who study all across the Bay Area are panicking, because many schools statewide had announced mostly online-only instruction weeks ago. This includes City College of San Francisco and San Francisco State — along with the entire CSU system. University of San Francisco will offer hybrid instruction, but some students’ schedules might all be online. 

Law feels extremely lost. Law left SFSU and was about to start a new semester as a transfer student at U.C. Berkeley this fall. Either way, Law’s visa is in jeopardy: Law’s class schedule at Berkeley is all online and so is SFSU, which is where Law attends according to the visa. 

The one loophole of the pending federal rule is that international students can keep their visas as long as they take at least one in-person class. But, while some universities are offering some on-campus instruction, these are often specialized courses. 

Verma said as a rising senior, she must choose between taking the classes she wants or sacrificing one to fulfill the in-person requirement. She doesn’t want to go in and catch the virus. 

“If you’re international, you’re probably on health insurance that doesn’t cover much,” Verma said. “[My] parents are earning Indian money and not dollars. It’s not a good feeling to have, especially right now.”

Students and institutions across the nation are toying with how to undermine the federal move. Undergraduates at UC Berkeley — which ranks fourth in the state in international student enrollment with some 10,000 scholars — are trying to create an in-person one-credit class specifically for international students as a last-ditch effort. 

One Berkeley student gathered public comments on Facebook to be read at the July 7 University of California Regents meeting. 

In an attempt to take matters into their own hands, students have been circulating the issue and petitions combating it on social media. The petitions have garnered thousands of signatures on behalf of the more than one million international students in the United States. 

But the burden of actually doing something about this situation still falls heavily on local educators, who must restructure their teaching plans or lose hundreds of international students. 

On Monday, City College’s international office website displayed a message in bright red letters, alerting international students that it was working hard to come up with a solution.

Kent Bravo, a spokesman for San Francisco State, said in an email that the university has been brainstorming with the rest of the California State University system for next steps. He said the policy would greatly impact SF State’s 1,686 international students. 

The policy could immediately lead to slowing or halting students’ paths to achieving their higher education goals and potential contributions to our communities,” Bravo said.  

Foreign students need one of three possible visas to study here: an F-1, M-1, or J-1. To apply, students and colleges had to prove they aren’t taking more than one three-credit class online, which has been policy for years. 

When the pandemic suddenly forced students off campus, the ICE overlooked this rule for the 2020 spring and summer semesters. By restricting international students from taking a full online course load, ICE is essentially re-invoking these requirements.

“This policy permitted nonimmigrant students to take more online courses than normally permitted by federal regulation to maintain their nonimmigrant status during the COVID-19 emergency,” the Monday announcement said. 

Even if students attend hybrid institutions like those in the U.C. system, most of the time this means only a handful of classes, like science laboratory simulations, are in person. 

This prompted a physical education teacher at Berkeley to trumpet openings in his in-person class Tuesday. David Liang, a rising Berkeley senior who is originally from China, said he luckily snagged a spot to solve his problem. He said when he enrolled, there were maybe four slots remaining.

Still, it’s possible that coronavirus could cause non-online colleges to backslide into remote learning in the middle of the semester. Institutions have 10 days to report any such changes to ICE, after which its students would be eligible for removal. 

This is what troubles Ana Soles Alonso, a sophomore Spanish mechanical engineering major at Berkeley. After finding out that its Greek life generated nearly 50 coronavirus cases on Wednesday, Berkeley noted that it might adjust hybrid teaching if cases continue to rise. 

“It directly impacts us,” Alonso said. “This only postpones the stress.”

Monday’s announcement stated that international students who wished to stay enrolled in their college could still do so as long as they continued their studies in their native country — but that brings about its own complicated consequences, including time differences that would make this difficult. 

Let’s say students go home. Students with F-1 visas can only be outside of the United States for five months at a time before their visas expire. Alonso and Liang said they’re both nervous that they will be sent back to their native countries at Thanksgiving, when Berkeley announced the end of in-person classes, and have trouble re-entering given coronavirus-related travel restrictions.

“What if five months pass and I am in Spain?” Alonso said. “I might have to take a gap year. I have to reapply. I might not be able to continue.”

Time-zone differences from California to Asia can be especially brutal — a noon class here is a 3 a.m. class in China — and the top five countries funneling foreign students in California hail from the continent.

Also, it remains to be seen how many foreign students would opt to pay American tuition without also receiving the privileges of living here — and, often, subsequently working here and making a life here. 

“I feel like if we pay that much and we’re doing completely online out of the U.S., then that’s not what we paid for,” Law said. 

For now, there’s not much to do. Alonso will wait and see. Liang is hanging by a thread with his physical education class. Verma might try to get an in-person internship — an unlikely venture, in this economy. Law just continues to worry. 

“I can do nothing right now. I have to wait for the schools,” Law said. “I guess I have to prepare for the worst.”

Correction on July 10, 9:22 a.m. An earlier version of this article listed University of San Francisco as a school that would be completely online in the fall. In fact, it offers hybrid instruction. It also incorrectly stated the total number of international students at San Francisco State University as 2,200; it is is 1,686. We greatly regret the error.

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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