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International students in NM face an uncertain future

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

University of New Mexico officials are scrambling to put international students into at least one face-to-face course this fall so they are not at risk of being kicked out of the United States or not allowed into the country.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in a message on Monday said those on study visas in the Student and Exchange Visitor Program cannot stay in the country if they take only remote courses this fall. Throughout New Mexico, there were 2,969 students in the exchange program in January 2020, according to ICE’s website.

“The news has really created quite a lot of panicked individuals,” said Linda Melville, associate director for International Student & Scholar Services at UNM. “International students … started flooding us with concerned calls asking if they have to leave. They were really in a panic.”

UNM is planning a hybrid fall term. About two-thirds of all classes will be remote, one-fourth will have some in-person instruction and one-twelfth will be done entirely in person, though the plan is subject to change depending on state public health orders, according to a memo from two UNM associate provosts to faculty and staff.

Such a schedule has put some of UNM’s roughly 1,100 international students at risk of ending up with an entirely remote schedule, Melville said.

The ICE news release says international students at schools with hybrid instruction, such as UNM, must take at least some in-person classes.

A memo from ICE about the new rule says that if a university changes its operations midway through the semester and international students wind up taking only online courses, then they must leave the country. Colleges will have to certify that their international students are receiving some instruction in person.

Ghada Zribi

Ghada Zribi, a UNM graduate student from Tunisia who is working toward a master’s in public administration, has found herself with an uncertain future.

UNM’s initial plan was for her entire program to be done remotely, she said.

“They are studying the option of shifting (a course) to hybrid classes, but nothing is for sure,” she said.

About 65% of UNM international students are graduate students. Melville said it can be particularly challenging to change graduate students’ schedules to comply with the ICE requirements.

“We’re here paying for our education,” Zribi said. “We feel like we’re being constantly reminded that we’re strangers and no one wants us to be here. I would say I’m frustrated and sad.”

The rules have received pushback from higher education institutions throughout the country. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued, and are seeking an injunction to stop the order from being enforced. Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said in a statement that the rule appears to be an attempt to pressure colleges and universities to open up their campuses in the fall.

This change doesn’t just impact higher education.

According to the New Mexico Public Education Department, changes to student visas could affect K-12 students.

Deborah Martinez, a spokeswoman for the department, said the state doesn’t track how many districts and charter schools host international students.

Menaul School, a private school in Albuquerque, has a robust international program, with a quarter of its 200-student population from other countries.

Lindsey Gilbert, head of school, said the recent announcement would theoretically affect the nearly 50 students on F-1 visas at the school, but Menaul School is planning on doing fully in-person classes. Still, concerns may arise if the school need goes to online instruction because of the pandemic, he said.

At UNM, officials are working to give students a way to comply with the mandate. New Mexico State University, which has more than 1,000 international students, said on Twitter that it is committed to the success of those students and will soon announce plans to allow them to stay on track with their studies and comply with the regulations.

“I believe … that this is the wrong path. This is the wrong way to go,” NMSU President John Flores said at a virtual town hall on Thursday. “It’s not good for the students, it’s not good for the universities, and it’s created a lot of anxiety and stress.”

At UNM, associate provosts Pamela Cheek and Bill Stanley suggested in a memo to faculty and staff that if there are problems getting the students into face-to-face courses, a department chair could modify their fall plans to create more in-person coursework.

UNM President Garnett Stokes said she was “extremely disappointed” in the new rule.

“Our international students are a vital part of The University of New Mexico, conducting important research and contributing to our classroom culture,” she said in a statement. “They are also a vibrant part of our University community and our overall Lobo DNA. Their absence from our classrooms, labs and community would diminish us all.”

Journal staff writer Shelby Perea contributed to this report.

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