Vietnamese students in the US under threat by Trump's new visa rule

By Long Nguyen   July 8, 2020 | 05:14 am PT
Vietnamese students in the U.S. face dire prospects as the country plans to bar them from staying if their universities switch to online-only courses this fall.

Le Hong Hanh, a 21-year-old Vietnamese student at the University of Southern California, could not sleep during Monday night, having no idea what awaits her this summer and coming semester.

In a news release on the day, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division said: "The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the U.S."

Students with F-1 visa (international students who are attending an academic program) and M-1 visa (international students attending vocational schools and technical schools) are under the new rule.

The move may affect thousands of Vietnamese students like Hanh who come to the U.S. to attend universities or participate in training programs, as well as non-academic or vocational studies.

"I’m like a cat on hot bricks. It's very frustrating," Hanh lamented. Enrolled in an undergraduate program at the university, she commenced online courses last semester due to the spreading novel coronavirus in the U.S., planning to do the same next semester since the university announced it would shift operations online.

ICE suggested students currently enrolled in America consider other measures, such as transferring to schools with in-person instruction or hybrid classes, a mix of online and in-person lessons. If not, students will risk deportation.

Harvard University, one of the institutions holding online classes this Fall. Photo by Photostock/Marcio Jose Bastos Silva.

Harvard University, one of the institutions running online classes this fall. Photo by Photostock/Marcio Jose Bastos Silva.

Nguyen Huy Hoang, a graduate student at Wilmington University, which plans for its summer and fall 2020 classes to be "conducted 100 percent online, said: "I feel disappointed and worried, many of my friends have started looking for schools with hybrid models or on-campus classes."

Since the outbreak hit America, Hoang has attended online classes and stayed home to avoid Covid-19 infection, now, at the risk of deportation.

Universities in the U.S. are beginning to make the decision to transition to online courses as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. At Harvard, for example, all course instruction will be delivered online, including for students living on campus.

Looking for new on-campus or hybrid courses at other schools is not easy since transfer deadlines are over, with the next semester only one month away and relocation cumbersome.

"It is just like dominos, one factor changes everything," Hoang said.

In many Facebook groups run by Vietnamese students in America, a myriad of netizens have expressed surprise and confusion after ICE’s new move on Monday.

They have called on others to sign a petition aimed at the White House, urging authorities to "treat international students with the same respect due to any college student" in the U.S. The petition has attracted nearly 90,000 signatures in one day, with the ultimate goal being 100,000 in 30 days.

"Online classes are the safest choice for us, even if they deport us, how can we return to Vietnam when flights are limited," Quan Nguyen, a graduate student at George Washington University, lamented.

Many worry they will have to wait a very long time to access government repatriation flights since commercial flights to Vietnam are not allowed, with their visas also needing extension before the next semester.

Vietnam has suspended all international flights since March 25 and has only granted permission for some special flights to repatriate Vietnamese citizens stranded abroad and carry foreign experts and workers needed in major economic projects.

Since April, the country has implemented dozens of repatriation flights taking its citizens home amid the pandemic, including around 5,000 Vietnamese students in the U.S. This means over 20,000 are still in the Covid-19 hotspot.

"We are in a dilemma," Quan maintained, adding he has always known that a full online course is not allowed if international students want to apply for the F-1 visa but we are in a pandemic, why can't the administration be more flexible?"

No Utopia

Many Vietnamese students have contacted their institutions in the last two days, hoping for clarification and chances for blended or on-campus classes, regardless of the Covid-19 risks they may face.

According to Linh Tran, student at the University of Washington, the institute’s international student services office had sent an email to reassure F-1 students, stating they are working with state’s congressional delegation and federal officials to reach a final decision.

"If you are in America, just stay calm and consider feasible solutions, do not panic or be confused," she wrote in a 6,000-member Facebook group about studying in America, quoting her university’s email.

With hybrid classes a Hobson’s choice to help international students maintain their nonimmigrant status, several universities have recently sent an update on the combination of in-person and online instruction in the next semester to reassure students.

Georgia State University, Spoke Community College, Colombia University, New York University, which has the highest number of international students in the U.S., etc. are all on the list.

But for many Vietnamese students, who have been stuck in the U.S. since March, returning to campus could be risky amid spiking coronavirus cases across the U.S.

"I am afraid the open campus attract a large amount of students this fall, I’d rather stay home and practice social distancing," said Duc Nguyen, sophomore at Georgia State University.

As of July 8, there have been over 2.9 million coronavirus cases in the U.S., with 130,133 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The line keeps going up and now youngsters like us must return to campus to maintain our status amid the raging pandemic, that’s ridiculous," Duc commented, adding he has been waiting to fly back to Vietnam and plans to attend online courses next semester.

Several universities have criticized ICE’s decision, saying it disregards the health and well-being of students.

Those staying in Vietnam and planning to leave for America for the fall semester are also facing an upheaval, having no idea when they could continue their American dreams.

"I can stay in Vietnam and study remotely to avoid the pandemic, but I do not know when I would receive my F-1 visa to experience academic life in America," said Nguyen Anh, newly enrolled at Georgetown University, originally planning to go to the U.S. in August but changing his plan later as classes switch online ahead of fall.

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Thao is still waiting for her university’s decision, and looking for hybrid courses at several institutions is Los Angeles. In the worst case, she said, she would think about going to Canada "since flying to Vietnam now is such a pipe dream."

"I want to attend online lessons to avoid the coronavirus, but now they tell me that could cause me to be deported, how cruel is that?" Thao asked.

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