For some international students, the recent ruling by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on international student visas is, at best, a major inconvenience. However, for Syrian students like Ralph Estanboulieh and Abdullah Bannan, who are currently enrolled as undergraduate students at Harvard College, the ruling could be life or death.
ICE’s announcement states that international students must take in-person classes to remain in the United States with an F1 student visa. For those at universities adopting online-only classes, international students will be forced to transfer to other schools that continue providing in-person instruction during the pandemic, depart the country, or face potential deportation—in some cases, to war zones.
In March 2020, in response to the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic, the Trump administration made exceptions to F1 visa regulations for the spring and summer, allowing international students to temporarily take more online classes than usually are permitted. But this week, ICE announced a reversal of that temporary exception.
In response, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have sued the Trump administration, asking federal courts to implement a temporary restraining order that would put the ICE policy on hold for 14 days, and eventually permanently block the order from taking effect.
This policy change could not have come at a worse time for international students on F1 visas. Universities are grappling with whether and how to reopen in the fall as Covid-19 cases continue to rise across the United States. Hours before the ICE policy was released, Harvard University stated that it would be operating at 40 percent capacity, with sophomores, juniors, and seniors taking online classes for the fall semester. The university has suggested that seniors will be given priority in returning to campus for the spring semester.
For many low-income international students who attend universities on full scholarships, the flights to return home alone would be economically catastrophic for their families, particularly as countries like Syria face hyperinflation—principally due to Covid-19, a new round of US sanctions, and uncertainty in Lebanon—causing a spike in exchange rates. Furthermore, traveling at a time when Covid-19 cases are increasing in the United States is dangerous both for students and their home communities, most of which don’t have the testing capacities to track and contain exposure.
But for Syrians and others from countries under US sanctions, including Cuba, Iran, and Sudan, the circumstances are even worse. In adherence to federal policy that bans the exchange of goods and services with sanctioned countries, many universities will not allow students based in these countries to participate in online learning, a technicality that makes this policy all the more devastating for some Syrians.
For male students from Syria, returning home and losing their student status could mean not only never returning to school but also being drafted into the Syrian military.
Many male Syrian students who are in the United States with an F1 visa rely on their college enrollment to avoid compulsory military service. As soon as they return to Syria and lose their full-time student status, they will be required by law to enlist.
Abdullah Bannan, a sophomore at Harvard University, reflected, “It’s extremely devastating for us to have overcome all these obstacles, against all odds and sacrifices, just to be faced with such an impossible decision, especially when our life is hanging in the balance.”
“The mere potential of facing the ‘initiation of removal proceedings’ is an overwhelmingly terrifying experience, especially when my home is war-torn. Because of this policy, my education, future, and even life are at stake.” added Ralph Estanboulieh, a senior at Harvard.
The decisions made by US universities, the Trump administration, and federal courts in the coming weeks could mean life or death for Syrian students forced to return home.