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“Only Things I Want Are a Haircut And an Education”: Travel Restrictions Threaten International Students, Faculties’ Arrival

A combination of travel bans and immigration restrictions imposed by the Trump administration in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic is making it unlikely that international faculty and students will be able travel to the United States in time for the start of the fall semester.

In a series of proclamations beginning in January and continuing throughout the year, President Donald Trump banned travel to the United States from multiple countries, including China and Europe.

Forty-six percent of the University’s 1,042 international students are from China, and 16.8 percent are from European countries. The proclamations do not have an expiration date, which has left many students without a clear idea of what their fall semester will look like.

“It’s just really frustrating,” said Hollie Watts, a British international student and MCAS ’21. “People are playing politics with my education, and it doesn’t make sense to me.”

While following the news in the United States from the United Kingdom, Watts said it can be frustrating to read about American policies that appear to prioritize trips to restaurants and bars over higher education.

“I can see Fourth of July photos of people on beaches, in backyards, barbecuing, not social distancing and not wearing masks,” Watts said. “That’s great, but all I want to do right now is get an education, and it is frustrating because the only things I want are a haircut and an education.”

While the majority of graduate students stayed in the United States when the University suspended in-person classes in the spring, many undergraduate students returned to their home countries because they did not have a place to stay for the summer and are now unable to return, according to Director of the Office of International Students and Scholars Adrienne Nussbaum.

Students who have already received their visa do not need to renew them, as educational visas are almost always granted for the duration of their education. But for incoming freshmen and faculty who have not obtained their visas yet, embassy closures and the suspension of visa appointments as a result of the pandemic only complicate the path to the United States.

Boston College has about 220 international freshmen enrolling for the fall, but there is a strong chance the majority of them will study remotely, according to Nussbaum, who said she spends a large amount of her time ensuring that students attending classes remotely will have access to the same resources as their in-person peers.

“This is going to have a huge impact on all of our new students,” Nussbaum said. 

“We understand that some first-year students are facing visa and travel problems beyond their control,” Executive Vice President Michael Lochhead and Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley wrote in an email to the BC community on Monday. “Those students will be provided the opportunity to take online classes, and we hope they will be able to continue their studies with us later in the academic year here in Chestnut Hill.”

For students who end up studying partially or entirely remotely in the fall, many questions still remain about tuition costs, health insurance, housing, and participation in clubs and other activities. When students were sent home in the spring semester, housing and dining charges were refunded and the entire community transitioned to a remote experience together. But in the fall, international students may miss out on club meetings and other activities that take place on campus and in person. 

Further complicating matters, the United States Student and Visitor Exchange program (SEVP) announced that international students who attend a University that is offering only online classes must either transfer to a school offering in-person classes or leave the country.

For students attending schools adopting a hybrid model such as BC, the universities must certify to the SEVP that the students are not taking an entirely-online course load and that they are taking the least number of online courses possible to continue to make normal progress towards their degree.

Watts said that the lack of a UGBC senator representing international students, due to the vacancy left by a graduating senior, is coming at a particularly inopportune time, when advocacy is exactly what international students need. 

“Now we don’t have anyone, no student representative,” Watts said. “The international student program and international student club aren’t advocacy based, so it’s very difficult as well to get international students speaking out about their situation because you want to get hired at the end.”

The University has not released any plans for how housing fees, activity fees, and other costs in addition to tuition will be handled for students who are not able to travel to Chestnut Hill.

On top of the travel bans, the Trump administration issued a proclamation on June 22 that suspended the processing of certain visa types in order to halt the arrival of immigrants to the United States. The proclamation stated that its purpose was to save jobs for American workers and to lower the unemployment rate, which was 11.1 percent in June.

Immigrant rights activists and economists have criticized the proclamation, saying the ban is both unnecessary and too strict. The ban on visas should not affect the vast majority of BC students or faculty. 

“We have a very small number of faculty, and potentially a postdoc or a scholar on an H-1 visa that it could impact.” Nussbaum said. “It doesn’t impact international students at all, and it really only impacts anyone who is outside the United States and doesn’t have a visa yet.”

The University has visiting scholars and other shorter-term hires apply for J-1 visas, which are currently still valid for travel for academics under the new order. The closure of U.S. embassies around the globe due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, has caused a backlog of visa applications to build, making it difficult for prospective faculty and students to obtain an appointment and have their visas processed in time for the start of the school year, according to Vice Provost for Faculties Billy Soo. Three faculty members who were planning to travel on J-1s are now uncertain if they will be able to make the journey.

“Even though they can apply for these J-1 visas [because] they’re not prohibited by the ban, they can’t do so because the embassy is closed,” Soo said. “At this point, we’re actually not confident that they’ll be able to get in in time for the fall semester.”

Also affected are the international faculty who were planning to travel on an H1-B visa in order to work at BC. These visas are for three years, but they are renewable. Under the Trump administration’s new restrictions, faculty who are outside of the country and were planning to travel on a H1-B visa will no longer be able to do so until the order expires on Dec. 31, 2020.

Currently, Boston College has two new hires whose H1-Bs are now invalid for travel to Chestnut Hill for the fall semester.

The University has experience with single-country bans, but a ban on international travel as expansive as the one that Trump signed into law is unprecedented, according to Soo.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had this number of countries affected by these closures,” Soo said. 

Faculty members who are already in the country on H1-B visas are permitted to stay, but the University has advised them to not travel outside of the country until the executive order expires, according to Soo.

The United States Department of State declined an interview request, but a spokesperson provided a statement.

“In response to significant worldwide challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of State is temporarily suspending routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa appointments at all U.S. Embassies and Consulates on March 20, 2020. As resources allow, embassies and consulates continue to provide urgent and emergency visa services,” a State Department spokesperson wrote in an email to The Heights. “Our overseas missions will resume routine visa services as soon as possible but we are unable to provide a specific date at this time.”

The State Department encourages applicants with an urgent matter to request an emergency appointment, the statement said.

BC has suspended all study abroad programs and canceled the exchange program for about 140 students who were planning to come to BC for the fall semester.

Featured Image by Jess Rivilis/Heights Editor

July 7, 2020