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St. Louis International Students Say Student Visa Makes Them Risk Coronavirus Or Leave

Unauthorized immigrants in rural areas who seek legal representation can often face roadblocks when trying to find credible lawyers.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
New guidelines from the Trump administration require international students with U.S. visas to take in-person courses. The decision was made as schools are discussing how to hold classes during the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Monday that international students in the U.S. cannot remain in the country if they are only taking online courses. 

The decision comes as universities are weighing how to hold classes during the coronavirus pandemic.

That worries Victor Putinier, a 24-year-old from Lyon, France, who’s pursuing a doctorate in French at Washington University. He’s attending on a student visa and is concerned that the new guidelines could force many international students to return home.

Putinier said he and many other international students face a difficult and expensive reality. Attending classes in person could expose them to the virus. But he said going back to the European Union would be a financially risky decision.

“I left France [for] the U.S. and gave up on a lot of degrees and career prospects there, so I'm not very well equipped to go back to the EU, to join the workforce in France,” Putinier said. “It would just be an absolute disaster financially. And also emotionally, because I've invested so much in terms of costs, it would put me into bankruptcy.” 

The new ICE guidelines present a lot of challenges for international students in the St. Louis area as the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the country. Many schools are debating how to convene fall semesters safely to reduce the risk of the virus being contracted and limit the number of in-person courses.

Listen: St. Louis on the Air host Sarah Fenske talks with immigration attorney Jim Hacking and Mark Kamimura-Jiménez, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Dean of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion at Washington University in St. Louis, about what this decision means for students enrolled in local colleges, and for those colleges. 

Washington University, St. Louis University and other universities will offer hybrid courses next semester in which students can take online and in-person classes. Putinier said international students are worried that having to attend class while the virus is still a threat could jeopardize their health. He said the only other option for many international students is to return home.

“If I do have to fly back to France, from St. Louis to Lyon, I have to go through at least four airports,” Putinier said. “It would be absolutely disastrous for me because I would risk just either getting the virus or transmitting it to the entire world.”

Many students are worried about their health. Marwa Mikati, who's from Lebanon, is pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience at Washington University. She said the new ICE guidelines are forcing students to attend in person, which could endanger their health.

“It leaves you in a spot where you're like, what matters more to me,” Mikati said. “I don't think that anyone should be choosing between picking up and leaving and sort of uprooting themselves and exposing themselves to a virus.”

Washington University Chancellor Andrew Martin said university officials are “deeply disturbed” by the new policy. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration’s visa requirements, arguing the decision is arbitrary and capricious. The universities also argued the decision could have been made to force schools to reopen in the fall.

“I think there's certainly some possibility that this is an attempt to use a rule related to international students to force the hand of universities,” said Washington University Immigration Law Clinic Director Katie Herbert Meyer. “I also think it's impossible to avoid the very real possibility that this is just one more attempt by the administration to vastly limit the number of immigrants we have in this country.”

Several months ago, ICE temporarily exempted students with U.S. visas from having to take in-person courses because of the pandemic. Meyer said the lawsuit argues that the sudden change isn’t explained or justified by immigration officials.

“Their initial reasons for creating the exemption go against this new rule change,” Meyer said. "The initial reasons said this is needed through the duration of this national emergency, and yet, now they're making a change and not explaining how it's any better now than it was on March 13, when they created the initial exemption.”

Putinier said he’s pleased that universities are challenging the federal rule. 

“What is a home when you spend so much time in another country? I have everything here,” Putinier said. “I don't really want to risk my life for the life that I got here, but I also don't want to risk my life going back to France.”

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis

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Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.