Summer ICE drama disrupts plans

International students comprise 20% of the Hill School’s student body, and the global pandemic posed numerous challenges to them. Back in March when the pandemic first surged in the United States, traveling became difficult due to border restrictions. While the school had announced to extend spring break and go virtual for two weeks, there remained a possibility of restarting school in person. Many international families found themselves vacillating between different decisions. Concerns — whether they should fly across the world back home or find a way to stay, when or if they’d be able to return any time soon, how they would deal with remote classes in different time zones — were all clouded with feelings of unease and uncertainty.

On July 6, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, made a sudden announcement of new policies targeted toward international students in American schools. The new policies would prohibit college international students to enter or remain in the United States if their school transitioned to fully online courses. 

The new policies issued in July, however, left many students with no choice but to attend in-person classes. This seemed untimely and inappropriate considering the number of daily infected people in the U.S. was still rising. On July 6, the day the policies were issued, a total number of 202,372 people were infected nationwide, according to the World Health Organization. 

The new policies directly impacted international students enrolled in American colleges, especially for those who had already returned to their home countries for the summer. If they wanted to maintain their student visas, they would have had to risk their health flying back to the United States. 

The new ICE policies not only placed international students in a difficult situation, but also pressured colleges and universities across the country to reconsider their fall reopening plans.  At the time, many institutions had already prepared for a virtual 2020 fall term, or a hybrid. Dartmouth, for example, released in their public statement that they would have a portion of students back on campus, learning virtually in their dorms. International students enrolled in colleges and universities that only offer online instructions in the fall faced deportation. Many colleges and universities sparked a backlash against the new ICE policies, with Harvard and MIT suing the Trump administration.

“ICE’s action leaves hundreds of thousands of international students with no educational options within the United States … for many students, returning to their home countries to participate in online instruction is impossible, impracticable, prohibitively expensive, and/or dangerous, ” stated the attorneys for Harvard and MIT in a suit filed in the U.S. District Court.

On July 14, ICE decided to rescind the policies. 

Although ending with victories for the spirited colleges, the one-week saga added to uncertainties for international students in the midst of a global pandemic. According to research conducted by Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium over the summer, the biggest concerns for international students in a pandemic environment is their health, safety, and visa status.

Although not directly impacted by the ICE policies targeted toward college students, international students at Hill still face many challenges in the midst of a pandemic. 

“The ongoing travel restrictions between the U.S. and Europe played a huge role as I make decisions for the upcoming school year, ” said Elena Mendez ’21, an international student from Spain who decided to withdraw from Hill and to enroll in a local school due to travel restrictions. Mendez flew back to Spain in March but found returning to the states difficult as the pandemic cases in the United States continue to rise. 

While many international students returned to their home countries, some chose to remain in the United States. Leo Shi ’21, a rising sixth former from Beijing, China, is among the latter. After spending two weeks in the school’s spring break camp, which accommodated international students, Shi stayed in Texas for four months. 

“I had to stay in the states because I registered for several standardized tests, but they got canceled one by one. When the new policies came out, it was pretty difficult and uncertain,” said Shi. 

While each student is in a different situation, the school administration has been working to provide support for international students. Helen Qiu, Hill’s newly appointed Administrative Coordinator and International Family Liaison, noted the uncertainties of the situation and the effort of staff members and faculties behind the scene. 

“The only constant is change itself, ” said Ms. Qiu, “but we try to prepare for plan Bs, plan Cs, and even plan Ds. ”