Commentary: ICE requirements for foreign students unworkable

Telling international students to go home if courses are online-only won’t serve students or colleges.

By Max Jordan Nguemeni Tiako / Special to The Washington Post

As colleges began to roll out plans for fall 2020, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it would prohibit international students from entering the United States, or remaining on U.S. soil, if colleges adopt online-only plans. Setting aside anti-immigrant animus — hard to do, in this case — the reasoning appears to be that if all instruction is taking place over the internet, there’s no reason for these students to stay in the United States.

That judgment underestimates the disruption that will ensue for international students; and the fundamental unfairness of the policy. I’m now a fifth-year medical student at Yale, but in spring 2017 — at the end of my first year — I flew to Cameroon, where I grew up, for my father’s wedding. It was my first trip home in three years. I planned carefully around my coursework; I left immediately after my last mandatory in-person class, knowing that I could watch recordings of the remaining lectures and take my last two exams from home.

Finishing up remotely sounds simple, but it was chaos. When I got to Yaoundé, it’s true that I was in a better situation than I’d experienced in high school. Back then, since we didn’t have a computer or internet access at home, I had to leave my house for cybercafes to complete assignments. This time, there was a mobile hot spot at my father’s house, but unlike the typical monthly plans of U.S. households, we purchased access by the gigabyte (or by the hour or day), depending on the need. Because of the slow download speeds, instead of watching lectures, like most of my classmates back in the United States, I worked through the corresponding textbook chapters and downloaded the exams. I took the first exam at home but couldn’t focus as well as I might have in my New Haven apartment; my then-6-year-old sister was clamoring for my attention. So I took the second exam at my father’s office, which was awkward but worked.

There is no way I could have done this long-term, as international students in online-only programs are now being ordered to do. In Cameroon, there’s simply no sustainable infrastructure in place for distance learning that would allow students to keep up with the pace of classes in the United States.

Overall at Yale, counting undergraduates and graduate students, international students make up 22 percent of the student body; some 3,000 people in all. At Yale College this fall — the undergraduate part of the university — sophomores will be asked to stay home the first semester, working remotely, freshmen the second semester. Other students will live on campus and take a mix of in-person and online courses.

In the medical school, first- and second-year students will also take a mix of virtual and in-class courses, so international students can stay. Third-, fourth- and fifth-year medical students like myself spend most of our time in the hospital, learning at the bedside and some doing research.

The university’s hybrid approach may offer protection, but Yale President Peter Salovey has written that “it is not yet clear how this policy will apply to every program or individual students.” (Is a sophomore asked to stay home for the year part of an “online-only” college?) At universities that are going online-only, such as Harvard — where some students will nonetheless live on the campus — the entire academic year might be in jeopardy.

If a student is sent back home, how would they participate in (online) group projects and live lectures, with low-quality or costly internet access? What about sleep disruptions? For students far from U.S. time zones — say, in Beijing — attending live-streamed lectures may be impossible, or at least unhealthy.

This new rule is exacerbating the baseline anxiety international students deal with; for this group, interruptions in education can be major setbacks. On the online Facebook group “Overheard at Yale,” I saw a post that read: “Is it possible to sue a country? Asking for a friend.” At universities where students are affected by this rule, students are wondering whether a requirement to be on campus for a single day in a semester would bypass the rule. Outsiders are asking this, too.

Universities want to protect their international students, but they are in a bind, forced to make the difficult choice between following important public health guidelines for students, faculty, staff and the surrounding communities; and holding in-person instruction so their international students won’t be deported. For now, the Office of International Students & Scholars at Yale tells us it is “aggressively exploring all options to allow international student enrollment either in-person or online.” MIT and Harvard have sued the Trump administration to stop the rule.

I am fortunate to be in a position where most of my medical school coursework will be in-person. But I am sick to my stomach thinking about all the students who will be affected by this policy. This plan does not seem well thought out. Alternatively, if the intricacies were considered and ICE still moved forward, then — as with other immigration restrictions put forward by this administration — the cruelty is truly the point.

Max Jordan Nguemeni Tiako is a fifth-year medical student at the Yale School of Medicine. He’s also a health policy research fellow at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

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