By Lorenzo Zazueta-Castro and Matthew Wilson

Paulina Longoria doesn’t want to leave the United States.

Student Paulina Longoria is one of many UTRGV students affected by ICE’s announcement Monday about student visas.
(Courtesy Photo)

The 19-year-old English major at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley has been in America since 2015, and said she simply feels more comfortable here, having already engrossed herself in the university community as well as the larger Valley community.

“There’s more opportunities for me, because I can work and study here with visas and permissions, and it’s safe here,” said Longoria, a native of Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas in Mexico.

Thanks to a federal policy change, however, Longoria recently feared the possibility of being forced out of the country before having finished her education, or having had the chance to embark on a writing career.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has already left educational institutions across the country scrambling, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Monday that it will not issue visas for international students enrolled in schools and its programs that are fully online for the fall semester, according to a news release.

The decision could affect hundreds of thousands of international students currently enrolled for the fall semester who hold F-1 and M-1 non-immigrant visas — Longoria is one such student — and comes as the Trump administration continues to restrict legal immigration.

The new restrictions put a cap on how many credit hours a student on this particular visa could use for online-learning or remote classes.

According to ICE’s release, if the institution implements a “normal in-school” class, students will be limited to one class, or three credit hours online. If the school adopts a hybrid approach of in-person and online courses, students can “take more than one class or 3 credit hours online.”

Non-immigrant students in the U.S. “are not permitted to take a full course” online even if a university or college begins with in-person classes and switches to entirely online.

This could mean that the students would have to leave the country, or risk deportation.

International students enrolled at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley were treated to a Thanksgiving meal at the university’s ballroom on the Edinburg campus Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2019.
(Francisco E. Jimenez | The Monitor)

In a similar decision less than a month ago, the Trump administration extended its restriction of non-immigrant work visas, suspending and limiting them until the end of the year. These are H-1B, H-2B, J and L visas.

H-1B visas are for specialty occupations in fields requiring highly specialized knowledge. Those who hold H-2B visas are temporary workers performing other services or labor of a temporary or seasonal nature. Professors, students, or teachers (exchange visitors) make up J visa holders, and L visas are for intra-company transferees.

César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an associate law professor at the University of Denver who specializes in immigration, said limits on international students’ course work, credits, isn’t a new concept. But in the context of a pandemic, it could leave hundreds of thousands of students in a precarious position.

“In a way it’s a return to normal; international students who are on these visas have a very strict limit on the number of credit hours or courses that they can take remotely; but the disconnect is of course that the world is anything but normal,” García Hernández said. “There’s an enormous gap between the legal requirements that ICE is planning to impose on students, and on colleges and universities, and the reality, that all of us are continuing to live through.”

A native of McAllen, García Hernández said colleges and universities across the nation have been working to devise a plan for the fall semester as it pertains to COVID-19, as the fall semester is about a month away.

“… Certainly every college and university in the U.S. has been thinking hard and frantically about how to accommodate learning in this crisis situation,” García Hernández said. “I think everyone is trying to make sense of how this is going to affect the ability of students to remain enrolled in course work, but also the financial stability of colleges and universities, many of which have come to rely quite heavily on the tuition that international students pay.”

It is not known yet how this restriction will financially impact universities and colleges, but García Hernández expects there to be a substantial impact to tuition for “domestic students.”

“A large number of both public and private universities across the U.S. have made a concerted effort to welcome international students. For many public universities in particular, it has helped to keep tuition lower for domestic students,” García Hernández said.

According to the Institute of International Education, in the 2018-19 academic year, there were at least 11 universities across the country that hosted more than 10,000 international students each at its institutions, with New York University leading the way with 19,605 international students.

Additionally, according to IIE’s data, Texas ranked third overall in states who hosted international students during that year with 81,893, only behind New York and California which hosted 124,277 and 161,693, respectively.

García Hernández, a 2018 Fulbright scholar and author of multiple immigration related books, also said in addition to financial contributions, international students have contributed to the country’s perception worldwide.

“The cultural and political effects of welcoming students onto our college campuses in the United States is something that has been part of U.S. diplomatic strategies going back generations. We have, as a country, enacted numerous governmental policies that have encouraged students to come here, and encourage U.S. students to go abroad, the most famous of these is the Fulbright Program,” García Hernández said.

“When students come to the U.S. to study, they get a sense of what matters in the United States, they get a sense of the intellectual freedom that is at the core of our democracy, of our, of this experiment in self-governance that we call the United States; on top of that they get a sense of what it is to be living in the U.S., the good, the bad, and everything in-between.”

Garcia Hernandez fears those “intangible benefits” is something that is at risk the more international students are faced with hurdles to study in the U.S.

There are also very tangible consequences of the new guidelines that hundreds of international students at UTRGV are likely going to be forced to grapple with over the next month.

UTRGV President Guy Bailey addressed some of those concerns in a statement Tuesday, voicing support for the institution’s international students, of which there is an average of 800 enrolled each year.

“All of them are valued members of our diverse university community, and we are committed to helping them continue their education at UTRGV,” he wrote. “As we review and interpret the new guidelines, rest assured that UTRGV will do all it can to ensure our international students aren’t affected by the new modifications and can continue their academic journey this fall.”

UTRGV announced via email late Tuesday that the university would be offering classes in four ways this fall: face-to-face, hybrid, online asynchronous and online synchronous.

The email says that international students will be able to stay in the U.S. in accordance with the SEVP guidelines by enrolling in at least one face-to-face or hybrid class and meeting the full-time enrollment requirement of 12-credit hours for undergraduates or nine-credit hours for graduate students, unless qualifying for a reduced course load.

According to the email, the university will be distributing more information to students’ UTRGV email addresses.

Before the news that UTRGV would accommodate students with new class models, Allison Cabanzo, 19, an international business major from Bogotá, Colombia, was left uncertain about her status, being in the U.S. on an F1 visa.

Cabanzo finished her freshman year of college this spring.

“I’m going to be a sophomore,” she said. “Hopefully.”

“Hopefully” is the attitude Cabanzo took toward much of her immediate future, which has been thrown into turmoil by the new guidelines. The airports in Colombia are closed, she says, and she doesn’t think she could get home even if she tried. She’s not sure what she’s supposed to do or even what she’ll be forced to do, and she says many other international students are in the same boat.

She described the situation as “highly concerning.”

“I was so confused yesterday. I even signed petitions to change that order, to at least do something, because we are just in this limbo,” Cabanzo said.

The impact of the new guidelines even stretched into The Monitor newsroom, where Longoria — a senior at UTRGV who’s also in the country on an F1 visa — is currently in the middle of a summer internship.

She described the visa policy change as distressing.

“I don’t want to leave. I have everything here, what am I going to do in Rio Bravo? It’s a little town, I don’t even have good internet in my house,” she said.

Like Cabanzo, Longoria says ripping out the roots she’s planted in the Valley will be a logistical nightmare for her and her education. Lack of internet in Rio Bravo and not having access to the library may make online courses unfeasible. She even worries that she won’t be able to get textbooks. She also has a lease and a job at the university, commitments she doesn’t want to abandon.

Longoria hopes she may have a month before she has to head back across the border, but she would much rather the university come up with some kind of solution that allows her to stay in the United States. Regardless, every hour that ticks by without a definitive solution makes the situation more frustrating and more complicated.

“Everyone is freaking out right now, because if we need to leave we should know so we can prepare,” she said before learning of UTRGV’s new accommodations. “I think it’s very unfair.”