International students stuck in limbo

ASU filed a joint lawsuit with 20 universities in federal court Monday

Yonca Cubuk still hasn't told her parents about new student visa regulations that could cause her to lose everything. She's stressed. She doesn't know what her life will look like tomorrow.

"I felt the sense of impending doom," said Cubuk, a graduate student studying religious studies. "We simply can't afford to go back ... I still haven't told my parents. I don't want to upset them."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced new guidelines July 6 that say international students at schools with a hybrid reopening plan will only be allowed to take more than one online class in the fall.  If the semester is held fully online, they must leave the country. ASU is planning to reopen for the coming semester and will need to certify that programs international students are enrolled in are not entirely online.

"ASU does not believe the new regulations and procedures proposed by ICE will have a material impact on the University or its international students, a University spokesperson said after guidelines were made public.

READ MORE: New ICE protocol should not impact ASU students, University says

The University is planning to reopen with a number of safety procedures in place: Students can decide for themselves whether they will be part of the cycling in-person lectures or attend online. Masks will be required in buildings and dining will be take-out only.

Administrators are monitoring the growth of the coronavirus in Arizona and are ready to transition to an online-only format if they deem it necessary. As cases continue to increase in the state, many students are worried about returning to campus. International students in particular are worried about the possibility of returning to ASU Sync, the school's Zoom program. 

"We don't know how to plan, what to do," Cubuk said. "We are supposed to sign a lease for the upcoming year and we are not sure if we should do that at this point."

Cubuk's husband, here on an F-2 visa, is worried about his own personal safety too. Emre Uzundag is reliant on his wife's visa to stay in the United States and if she goes, so does he.

"We're lucky that we have each other," Uzundag said. "We foreigners who have to risk a lot from their life to plan ahead of everyone and have to take into consideration every detail just to pursue a better education and a better life, continue to be ignored."

Coming to the United States can take years of planning and stacks of paperwork. While planning a life away from possible political persecution in Turkey looks forward to the future, Cubuk and Uzundag's new U.S. home is riddled with uncertainty as they aren't sure if they'll be forced to go back.

"I had a very respectful job for five years before leaving (Turkey) to pursue a dream in the U.S.," Uzundag said. "I was not allowed to make a difference for in my country for my people. And now, I'm not wanted here."

What reopening will look like and how it could change

With the very real possibility the coronavirus could get worse before or while students are on campus, international students are concerned everything could change dramatically and they'll be sent to a place they no longer call home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have released guidance for reopening K-12 schools and universities as President Donald Trump threatens to take away funding from schools that do not reopen. 

General guiding principles for lowest risk include virtual-only learning, closed residence halls and discouraged use of shared items. According to ProPublica, the state of Arizona only meets one of five goals for reopening. 

Arizona's positive COVID-19 cases are no longer growing exponentially, but to say the number of cases won't impede on in-person class instruction and therefore the more than 10,000 international students is short-sighted, students said.

ICE regulations say students at institutions that have announced they will be online-only cannot take a full course load and stay in the United States. Acting Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Kenneth Cuccinelli, told CNN Tuesday the guidelines provide more flexibility to enroll in classes and encourage schools to reopen.

Cuccinelli said if schools are completely online, "there isn't a reason" for international students to remain on American soil.

International students bring tuition to the University

Eileen Diaz McConnell is a professor and sociologist in the School of Transborder Studies, focusing on Mexican and other Latin American immigrant populations. While her research does not focus on international students and their travel, she said immigration policy has never been more active than under President Trump's administration.

"In times of uncertainty, especially economic uncertainty, the United States has a history of being exclusionary and of being anti-immigrant," McConnell said. 

ASU has about 13,000 international students whose tuition is set at around $54,593 a year, totaling just over $700 million in tuition for the University. Most international students do not qualify for federal or state aid but can receive help from the University. 

READ MORE: International students are key players in ASU's strategic business plan

"It's possible that this is going to be a temporary situation," McConnell said, pointing to the upcoming November presidential election. "Even if it's temporary and even if it's one semester, that is hugely impactful to the students that it might affect."

Fearing for the future and worrying that it's possible the years of taking classes, participating in internships and paying thousands of dollars could have gone to waste are on the mind of many senior international students. 

University said regulations won't impact students, signs legal action

The University filed a federal lawsuit Monday along with 20 other schools, including UA and NAU, in Oregon U.S. District Court to oppose the regulations after posting on Twitter last Thursday that ASU was "looking at the most effective way to engage in legal action on this."

"There is no actual indicator, no measurement of economic change that says that international students and college graduate immigrants weaken the American economy in any way, or eliminate or reduce opportunity for Americans. None," a statement from President Michael Crow said.

ASU is one of 180 other schools signed on to an amicus brief, a document submitted to a court by an entity not directly involved in the case in support of a particular side or to provide more information, filed by the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration in support of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology attempt to rescind the guidance.  

In addition, ASU is among 60 other schools to file amicus briefs in the Harvard and MIT suit filed in Massachusetts.

President Crow told KTAR News Thursday "there is no logic" to the regulations and wrote in a statement Monday the "directive runs contrary to our nation's ideas and our institutional commitments to enhancing access to education and global engagement."

"There's a million international students in the United States. It's principle American export of our culture and everything about it. It's an important part of the United States," he told KTAR. 

The University has additionally assured students it is "prepared for a variety of circumstances depending on the situation" but has given no details.

Crow said in the statement that the University also joined a letter to congressional leadership at the federal level to "urge the Department of Homeland Security to withdraw the new guidance and restore institutional flexibility to support international students during the pandemic."

"The present effort to remove these talented, skilled and generous individuals from America's economic and cultural landscape is a thoughtless and deeply misguided mistake, and ASU will vehemently oppose any effort to do so," the statement said. 

International students call for support from their peers

Beril Hezer is a senior completing an internship in nutrition and dietetics with her student visa. She needs the credit to complete her degree which will allow her to practice. Hezer said she's a relaxed person and was an international student in Spain before coming to Arizona.

"I always try to avoid to think (there's a possibility I could be deported) because I believe that negative thoughts bring the negative outcomes," Hezer said.

And while undocumented students face a very different set of unique challenges, leadership at the Undocumented Students for Education and Equity at ASU club said they were trying to ensure protections were equal across the board. 

"I do feel sorry for them," said Luis Zambrano, a senior studying journalism and communications director for USEE. "They should not need to potentially compromise their health, or even their financial situation, just so they can continue their education. That not something that should have even been on the table to begin with."

While there could be significant economic loss to universities all over the country who rely on the tuition of their students to stay afloat, international students want to be seen as human first. They're chasing similar dreams but with more obstacles.

"It's really difficult to bear this burden without the support from other U.S. citizens," Uzundag said.


Reach the reporter at pjhanse1@asu.edu and follow @piperjhansen on Twitter. 

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