The International Students that the United States Treats as Aliens During a Pandemic

Seyedeh Mehrnaz Moghaddam


International students in the US rarely receive attention as a vulnerable group in times of crises; however, because of their immigration status, they have been living in a precarious situation amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. They are usually perceived as a privileged group who have their families’ financial support available to them, although this is not the case for many. Many mesmerized by the “American dream” bet their lives in favor of a better future, many works hard to become a part of a higher education system that has a distinctive international reputation, and many make the journey with the hope of finding freedom. And for many, hoping to become part of the global north, because of their citizenship and the passports they hold, coming as a student is the only possible option that allow them to set foot on US soil. Through my interviews with three PhD international students -their names are anonymized at the interviewees’ request- at the City University of New York, I attempt to reveal the uncertainty and insecurity that international students have been experiencing through the COVID-19 pandemic. Challenges international students face are the consequence of their non-immigrant status, and the ways in which the COVID-19 measures and policies implemented by US government, excluded them as “aliens.”

The latest National Association for Foreign Student Affairs (NAFSA) report shows that international students studying in US colleges and universities contributed $41 billion and $38.7 billion to the US economy during the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 academic years respectively. Based on NAFSA’s report, for every eight international students, three US jobs are created, which brings the number of jobs supported by international students in 2019 to 415,996, positioning education as one the America’s most vital exports. Yet, they are considered aliens and a threat to the American job market. On May 7, 2020 four U.S. senators urged the US government to suspend the issuance of H1B visas and Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, both of which are major options for international students to remain in the US after graduation. Tightening visa regulations for international students was not only limited to the suspension of work authorization but was expanded to include the deportation of international students whose courses had shifted online for the Fall 2020 semester. US Homeland Security determined that international students entering the US with F1, J1, and M1 visas would be required to keep fulltime in-person course loads with limited permission to take online classes. Lucas, an international PhD student at CUNY wonders, “what does it mean to be sent home if there is no way to go home?”

Lucas’ Journey as an International Student

While universities were debating to keep classes online for the Fall semester at the beginning of summer 2020, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced on July,7 2020, that international students who would be attending online classes in Fall 2020 would lose their F1 status, and would have to leave the US and go back to their home countries. Lucas said, “the problem was that at that time, all the flights to Brazil were canceled, and there was no way for me to go back to Brazil.” This bill was rescinded a few days later, after a few universities fought against it; however  new international students and ones with expired visas who were outside the US were not given F1 visas and could not go back to US until new SEVIS regulations were published. It was not only the implementation of the travel ban that impacted international students. On January 3rd, 2020, President Trump signed the first proclamation suspending entry into the United States of aliens who were physically present in China within the 14 days preceding their entry to the US, and not long after, other countries including Iran, Brazil, United Kingdom, and Schengen Area countries were added to the list.

Lucas’s wife, Jing, is from China and holds F2 immigration status – a dependent on an F1-visa holder through Lucas. While she has a valid US visa, they haven’t been able to find a way to bring Jing back to the US. “At that stage of marriage, when you have to be planning for your future with your wife, being apart for such a long time doesn’t help the relationship. The 12-hour time difference doesn’t even provide us a few hours to be awake at the same time,” Lucas said. To accompany and help her mother with surgery, Jing went back to China in December 2019 and hadn’t been able to be reunited with Lucas until February 21, 2021. F1 and F2 status holders who already have a valid visa can circumvent the ban by flying to a third country which is not among the banned  countries of COVID-19 ban and stay there for 14 days, then they are allowed to fly to US. But for Lucas and Jing, this is not financially viable.

As a F-2 status holder, Jing is not allowed to work without remuneration. She is also not allowed to study in programs that offer official certificates. Lucas, as an international student, is permitted to work for a maximum of 20 hours a week and only on-campus. However, as a graduate student holding teaching or research positions, there is an additional CUNY workload limit. “I have to navigate the CUNY workload system on top of the F1 limitations, to cover life expenses in New York,” Lucas continued. “This Fall semester, I survived by tutoring one undergraduate class as part of my fellowship, teaching one class as an adjunct lecturer, and working other small jobs such as grading, taking on a research assistantship. Yet I had to apply for an emergency fund from the university to pay my bills. What is striking is that you work harder than most other people only to secure your position for the next semester because there is no other option for you, and yet nothing is guaranteed.” International students lack privileges and support that are extended to citizens, such as some competitive scholarships and funds provided for graduate students. “We get notified about available scholarships, but we are rarely included among the students eligible to apply,” Lucas said.

I asked Lucas how he will catch up with his own courses and deadlines, considering international students have to remain full-time students so as to not to lose their F1 status. Lucas replied, “At this point, those are the last things I think about. At this stage of my PhD, I should be researching for my project and choosing my advisor and committee members, but what is the point of investing time to find an advisor if I won’t be able to afford staying here and continuing my studies.” Lucas, like many other graduate students at CUNY, wasn’t offered the opportunity to teach any class for the next/ Spring 2020 semester. City University of New York, the largest public urban university, encountered  drastic budget cuts from the state of New York amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Consequently, nearly 3000 adjunct lecturers have been laid off, among which many are graduate students at CUNY.

Ceyda’s Journey as an International Student:  

Ceyda, another international PhD student at CUNY, is one of those lecturers who has not been offered a class for the Spring 2020 semester. Ceyda explains that her classes have increased in size. She is teaching 2 classes this semester, one of which has 200 students, and so she gets paid a little extra for the grading. “Thanks to the destroyed economy of Turkey, currently my husband and I survive on my salary, but we have no idea about the next semester,” Ceyda says with a bitter smile. Ceyda and her husband Emir left New York for their home country Turkey at the end of March 2020. “My husband was a master’s student at CUNY last year and he did not have health insurance. We were scared of both the health and financial consequences of not having insurance in US. In the beginning of March [2020], Turkey started closing its borders and canceling flights from countries with high COVID-19 cases. When the number of cases started to increase in New York, we decided to leave the US, before flights from the US to Turkey get canceled,” Ceyda said. After a few days of their arrival in Turkey, at the beginning of April, Emir was notified that he was admitted to a PhD program at CUNY. Once he asked for his I-20 form so that they could go back to their life in New York, Emir was told by the international office that since classes have shifted online, international students starting their program in the new semester would not be allowed to enter the US, even though he already had a valid visa. Inevitably, Emir’s SEVIS ID -his immigration status as an international student- was canceled, and therefore, he is not allowed to work anymore.

“We were hoping this would change for the Spring semester, but so far, the new regulation applies through the 2020-2021 academic year. Hence, we had no choice but to end our New York apartment’s contract, and since we couldn’t afford to hire a moving company and storage, we sold our furniture on Facebook marketplace. It was deeply sad to give away our life from far,” Ceyda continued. “Luckily, we managed to find an apartment through Airbnb since subletting and short-term rentals are not usual in Turkey.”

Unlike Lucas, Ceyda is lucky that her husband is also from Turkey, so they both were able to stay together during this unusual time. However, the 8-hours’ time difference between where she works and where she lives makes her life a constant jet lag. All her classes, both wherein she is the student or the teacher, occur at night as per Turkey’s time. “It makes it so hard to focus when you are supposed to already be in bed.” Ceyda disappointedly continued. “Losing the sense of time and space trigger my anxiety, but the worst part is not knowing what is going to happen next. We don’t know for how long we have to live in limbo and wait for the new regulations from USCIS to allow us to go back to New York.”

Lucas and Ceyda’s experiences illustrate that while the new US measures restrict their mobility, the discriminatory regulations that limit their access to the job market based on their non/immigration status have always been impacting their lives, and certainly inhibit their ability to navigate the current circumstances. Their near future is uncertain, as they don’t know how they are supposed to continue their studies if they don’t get a teaching position next semester. Zahra’s story as an international graduate student in the US exemplifies the experiences of international students who are left behind in obtaining competitive positions such as teaching or research positions. Zahra also reminds us that international students should not be assumed to be a homogenous group, and that socio-economic status is not the only indicator of international students’ accessibility to opportunities. International politics also play an important role, as do the country of citizenship and the passport that they hold. All these can exacerbate their conditions and life experiences.

Zahra’s Journey as an International Student:  

Zahra is from Iran and came to the US as an international student to pursue her master’s degree at CUNY in 2017. Strikingly enough, not only could she not receive any money from her parents in Iran, but she also wasn’t allowed to open a bank account since Iran was under sanctions. Zahra explained her experience when she arrived in the US for the first time, “I was shocked to realize that I don’t have access to any form of financial help, neither through my university nor from my family back in Iran. The on-campus job paying the minimum wage hardly covers the cost of a room in New York. Above all, my tuition as an international student was almost 40 percent higher than a US citizen or a permanent resident.” Through the Iranian community, Zahra learnt that there are two options for her to cover university and living expenses. “For my tuition, I applied for a student loan through a third party, a private company that charges me higher interest rates compared to the market rates. Then, in addition to on-campus jobs, I found a packing job in an E-commerce warehouse that paid me cash.” Zahra continued. “After a year, my employer realized that I was a master’s student, and he could use my skills in the data analysis section. I got promoted in some way, but my wage didn’t increase since as an F1 status holder, my off-campus work was illegal, and my employer was aware of it.” In 2019, Zahra was admitted to her dream PhD program at CUNY, but unfortunately without a teaching fellowship, so she kept working at the same company. Later, she received a graduate assistant position at CUNY in December 2019. However, by the time her employment was being processed, CUNY instituted a freeze in hiring in response to the economic downturn brought by COVID-19. “While all my documents were ready at the HR, my appointment letter was never signed by the provost and my emails remained without any response,” Zahra disappointedly continued. “I was frightened to go back to my workplace since I didn’t have insurance and we were between 10 to 15 people working every day in the warehouse that has 3 rooms of which one belongs to my boss. In May 2020, a few of my co-workers and I got COVID-19. Luckily, I didn’t have to go to the hospital and my symptoms were mild except for a few nights of high fever. Nevertheless, I keep thinking how I am supposed to live in the US for five more years with so many restrictions as both an Iranian and an international student. Every new policy reminds me that I am not welcome here.”

And then, what?  

Work offered to international students is being controlled and restricted through state policies. In many cases these restrictions force international students to work outside the legal frame that has been defined/designed for them. Setting foot in the so-called illegal zone, international students become part of the labor market that is being exploited. This situation has been intensified by the economic downturn that has come about as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic and will be exacerbated in the very near future. While the U.S. state response has been that of ‘othering’ international students and attempting to expel them, the question remains: who is responsible for rising and discussing these concerns? It is time that colleges and universities, as entities that welcome international students to this country, look deeper into how F1, J1, and M1 regulations complicate and impact these students’ lives, and fight against the discriminatory policies imposed on international students.



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