‘Cruel and xenophobic’: Students, college officials condemn new ICE regulations 

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, June 30, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/8/2020 4:57:32 PM

AMHERST — Evgenia Trufanova, an international graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, had planned to stay in the area for the fall semester to continue her education through remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Now, like countless international students around the country, Trufanova is faced with the possibility of a forced return to her home country, Russia, due to new regulations released by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Under these regulations, which ICE released on Monday, international students on F-1 or M-1 visas who cannot take part in on-campus classes must transfer to a college or university that allows them to take in-person classes or leave the country. 

“I just can’t wrap my head around this,” Trufanova said on Wednesday, adding that many students in her situation are dealing with similar anxiety.

“I started texting all my international friends, and everyone was kind of panicking,” Trufanova said. “We’re all very stressed, just feeling kind of helpless.”

On top of finishing her degree, Trufanova also signed onto a year-long lease in preparation for the fall and does not yet know if she will have difficulty getting out of the agreement. While she already has a job locally, she also doesn’t know how long it would take her to secure employment if she were forced to return to Russia.

“I just have a life set up here,” Trufanova said. “I’ve been here five years.”

Hiba Ahsan, also an international graduate student at UMass, said that the new regulations are another source of stress for international students during a time when the impacts of the pandemic have left many students devastated emotionally and in a precarious financial situation. 

“I feel like it’s harassment on a daily basis,” said Ahsan, who is from India. “What do we do about our degrees? What about our job prospects?”

With many countries restricting inward travel due to the pandemic, officials “don’t even know if the borders will open up,” Ahsan said. “We could be stranded.”

UMass international graduate student Madiha Noor said that while she is not directly affected by the regulations, as she holds a J-1 visa, she is concerned about her friends who are impacted and wonders if those with her visa could be targeted next.

“Considering this is such an unprecedented thing, we’re worried we could be affected as well,” Noor, who is from Pakistan, said of J-1 visa holders. “But of course, right now, we’re worried about our friends.”

Additionally, after the expenses associated with gaining a visa, students will face further financial stress if they need to return home or transfer schools, Noor said. 

“All of us feel very threatened now,” she added. “We used to feel very welcome here; now it’s the opposite.” 

College officials respond

The new ICE regulations have prompted outcry from colleges around the country. On Wednesday, officials at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration in an attempt to block the policy.

Area college officials have condemned the ICE regulations and committed to advocating for students.

“It makes no sense whatsoever to have international students penalized because institutions have made the best possible decisions regarding the health and safety of their campuses in a pandemic,” Amherst College officials said in a statement.

In addition to cutting short their academic learning, “The action announced yesterday will also jeopardize the ability of international students to pursue professional opportunities during and immediately following their education,” the statement continued, noting “these opportunities are a core part of what an Amherst education offers.”

In a letter to the Smith College community, college President Kathleen McCartney called the ICE ruling “stunningly cruel and xenophobic.” McCartney said the regulations are an attempt by the Trump administration “to pressure colleges and universities to prioritize in-person instruction despite the need for strict physical distancing” just as colleges are better adapting to remote learning.

“To our international students, who have already been targeted by this administration’s capricious and confusing travel and visa restrictions, I want to assure you in the strongest terms: you are valued members of the Smith community, and we will do everything we can within the law to ensure you can complete your Smith education,” McCartney said. “You belong here, and we will fight for you.”

At Holyoke Community College, a “quite small” number of students are on F-1 visas, according to Rachel Rubinstein, vice president of Academic & Student Affairs at HCC. However, these students are “are deeply impacted and disrupted” by the ICE ruling, she said, as the college will mostly hold classes remotely.

“We are working with each impacted student individually to assist them with either transferring to an institution that is offering face-to-face classes, moving back to their home countries where they can continue to take HCC online classes, or taking a break in their education in the U.S. with an option to return at a later date,” Rubinstein said.

Many university officials also said that the guidance is unclear and subject to change.

In a message to students, Kenneth J. Reade, director of International Student & Scholar Services at UMass, said that the “guidance, unfortunately, is a continuation of consistently poorly written and unsatisfactorily considered federal public policy on immigration.” UMass is “actively engaged in advocacy on your behalf at a national level,” he told affected students.

UMass enrolls about 3,500 international students per year, according to university spokeswoman Mary Dettloff. Officials are not sure how many of these students remained in the U.S. and how many returned to their home countries in the spring, as students are not required to report this personal travel.

“Because the guidance is so confusing, we are still studying it and trying to assess the impact,” Dettloff said.

Hampshire College president Ed Wingenbach called the decision “deliberately cruel and manifestly unjust,” adding that the college is seeking out ways to help international students at other colleges who are threatened by the regulations.

“Because Hampshire has capacity to safely add students this fall, we can offer sanctuary for at least some international students who might otherwise have to leave the United States,” Wingenbach said. “We will continue to search for additional ways to counter the destructiveness of this decision.”

Mount Holyoke College President Sonya Stephens also voiced her support for international students amid the news of the ICE regulations.

“This move also does irreparable harm to the intellectual communities of which these students are fully a part,” Stephens said in a statement, “and to the intellectual projects to which they are key contributors; it undermines generations of global understanding and collaboration; and it casts a long shadow over the nation’s reputation as a place of welcome and opportunity for the best minds in the world.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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