‘What did we do to deserve this?’: International students worried about new ICE guidelines


Kaycee Orwig | Visual Editor

The COVID-19 pandemic causes uncertainty about returning for the fall semester for many of Pitt’s more than 3,100 international students.

By Rebecca Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

When Ghalia Malki first heard about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s new guidelines, which would force international students to leave the country if classes are online only in the fall, her emotions shifted rapidly.

“My initial thought process was like, honestly, I wasn’t super surprised, but then I got angry,” Malki, a rising junior biology major, said. “What did we do to deserve this?”

Malki, an international student from Saudi Arabia, is one of Pitt’s more than 3,100 international students who were targeted by the recent ICE decision that would force students to pack up and leave the country or transfer to a different university offering in-person classes if Pitt shifted to online-only instruction. Existing regulations generally ban international students from taking online-only classes while living in the United States, though ICE temporarily waived this rule this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The University plans to implement both its new Flex@Pitt teaching model and a three-tiered reopening system to allow for in-person teaching to resume during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In-person instruction at Pitt would only be allowed if Allegheny County remains in the green phase of reopening, per state rules, and the University itself moves to its green-equivalent reopening status.

For Malki, this ruling is an indicator of the failings of the United States’ immigration system that continue to affect her, despite the fact that she has lived in the United States for the majority of her life. Malki has lived in the United States permanently for 12 years and only visits Saudi Arabia in the summer to see her parents.

“The U.S. system is already against us, but now it’s even more so. Now, it’s affecting my education,” Malki said. “My education is being impaired, and I don’t think that is fair.”

Pitt responded to the ruling in a Monday statement, calling ICE’s guidance “misguided and unfair to international students, harmful to higher education across the United States and damaging to both regional and national economies.” Pitt also said it would call on the Trump administration to reverse the guidance.

Shortly after releasing the statement, Pitt’s Office of International Services sent emails to all international students further elaborating on what they should do to remain in the United States come fall. The email laid out some specific recommendations, including that students are not permitted to select a fully remote option and must choose a hybrid or fully in-person course load to meet the ICE guidelines.

“If your program only offers online courses, you will need to take them from your home country,” the email said.

Multiple students slammed the wording of the email, including a graduate student in the English department. Sri — who asked to be identified by only her first name due to fears of retaliation from ICE and the University — said the email was one of the “cruelest she has ever seen.”

There’s no sympathy, there’s no concern,” Sri said. “What they’re basically saying is you take in-person classes, get COVID and die, or you go back to your country.”

Malki also criticized the letter and advisers, who she said she believes weren’t properly informed on the new ICE decision.

“I thought that email was so ironic with the two different tones,” Malki said. “They should inform all advisers of what is happening right now. OIS told me to go talk to my bio adviser and my bio adviser told me to go talk to OIS. This was two grueling hours of me freaking out.”

Ariel Armony, the director of the University Center for International Studies, said his office is trying to help international students navigate the new guidance.

“This absurd, draconian federal policy flies in the face of Pitt’s values,” Armony said. “We are doing everything we can to help our international students understand the best way for them to be able to continue their Pitt education.”

Sri said the stress from this ruling has impacted her daily life, and she is struggling to continue the research required for her program.

“I’m not able to sleep at night. I can’t take the stress and anxiety any more,” Sri said. “Despite this, I still have to be on top of my research. I have to apply for research grants and that’s incredibly hard.”

In an effort to pressure Pitt to take action against this new ruling, Sri and more than 1,00 other people signed an open letter urging Pitt to adopt 11 measures to better protect international and immigrant students. Many of the measures focus on making Pitt a “sanctuary campus,” where students would be protected from ICE. 

The letter also demanded Pitt pursue legal action against ICE and the Trump administration alongside other universities. After ICE issued the guidance Monday, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the Trump administration Wednesday. Many large universities, including nearby Carnegie Mellon and Pitt rival Penn State, are filing court papers in support of the Harvard and MIT suit.

Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick did not directly respond to questions about specific actions the University is taking to counter the guidance. He also didn’t respond directly to whether Pitt planned to join litigation against the administration or the likelihood of establishing Pitt as a sanctuary campus.

“Pitt is carefully assessing several actions we can take to protect our international students from the effects of this discriminatory decision and to stand up against it in partnership with our peers in the higher education world,” Zwick said. “We will continue to directly communicate with our international students in the coming days about how they can best continue their Pitt education.”

Sri said the University should do more to stop the guidance and to promote diversity on campus.

“It’s not enough to say you’re diverse and you’re inclusive if you don’t do anything,” Sri said. “Pitt can do a lawsuit now and they haven’t taken any action.”

Beyond the visa restrictions, Sri added that, due to current travel restrictions between the United States and her home country of India, flying home is a near impossibility due to limited and expensive flights.

“For a flight from New York, my cousin paid almost $1,200 one way to New Delhi, which is not even where we live in India. Some of us have signed leases. It’s not just possible to break the lease, so we’d still have to pay rent,” Sri said. “Financially, it’s going to be a nightmare if I have to go back.”

She said she also doesn’t want to risk exposing her parents and others to COVID-19.

“What if I really have COVID when I go back I expose my parents who are senior citizens,” Sri said. “The place I live is considered a red zone because the number of cases are too high, so even if I go to India, I won’t be able to go to the place I live.”

Sri added that this process has forced her to reevaluate her decision to come to the United States for school and whether she’d recommend the same for others.

“Every year, international students from India ask me for advice about coming here,” Sri said. “Now, I’m just going to tell them, don’t come here, it’s not worth it.”

Anika Agarwal, a rising sophomore environmental science major, is also an international student from India. She, unlike Sri, is currently in India and is attempting to board a repatriation flight in order to enter the United States. These government-sponsored flights were designed to rescue citizens or green card holders like Agarwal who were stranded abroad due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are also transporting college students into the country, since most international commercial flights have been suspended due to travel restrictions.

The United States has an indefinite travel ban on China, which is where about 60% of Pitt’s international students come from, as well as the European Union’s Schengen Area. There are also travel advisories for India and South Korea.

Agarwal said boarding the repatriation flights are expensive and unpredictable. She said since Pitt moved the start of the fall semester up a week, she is concerned about making it on campus in time to quarantine and start class on time.

“The fares are triple what they were before, usually like three to four thousand for coach,” Agarwal said. “Since the flights are so last minute, I may get a flight only two days before the semester starts and miss the first two weeks, which is the add/drop period.”

Agarwal — who spoke in May about the challenges she faced leaving campus — said she hasn’t received much guidance from Pitt since then. But she said she considers herself lucky because the new visa regulations do not directly impact her, since she is a U.S. green card holder. This means she would not be forced to leave the United States if Pitt shifted to online-only instruction and could stay with extended family.

“They haven’t come up with anything concrete for us to follow. Everything’s kind of up in the air right now,” Agarwal said. “I wish someone would just reach out to us, they haven’t done anything.”

Agarwal added that the new ICE guidelines are offensive to her as an international student, because she feels targeted by the U.S. government for trying to obtain a good education.

“There’s no reason to target students. We’re just coming here to get educated,” Agarwal said. “Half of us don’t have proper education in India, so we’re coming to the U.S. for an opportunity and for knowledge. And now we’re being treated like this.”