Venezuelan Students in the U.S. Grapple With ICE Decisions

Recent modifications might force Venezuelan students to leave the U.S. in the middle of a pandemic and a humanitarian crisis in their home country

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency announced on July 6th that international students whose universities only offer online classes this fall semester won’t be allowed to remain in the country. The agency didn’t provide any specific reasons for the measure. 

The new guidelines affect students who are in the U.S. under temporary student visas. They can be either in an academic program like a bachelor’s degree or language training (under an F-1 visa) or in a nonacademic, vocational program (under an M-1 visa). This means more than 1 million students, according to data from the 2018-2019 school year in the Institute of International Education. That number includes about seven thousand Venezuelans.

The changes come as COVID-19 cases in the U.S. surpass 3 million and institutions plan the modality of their fall semester. Some had begun to roll out their reopening plans, which included a combination of online and in-person classes. Others considered moving to a fully online course load and now face pressure to offer in-person courses so international students can stay in the country.

Regular visa limitations prevent international students from taking classes exclusively online. The agency made exemptions at the beginning of the pandemic lockdowns but only for the spring and summer semesters. Now, if schools remain online, students would technically have two options: return to their home countries and take classes online there, or transfer to an institution that offers a hybrid or completely in-person semester. In practice, however, many countries are still offering a limited number of flights and seeing a rise in the coronavirus cases. Flights from the U.S. are even banned from entering the European Union at the moment. 

Venezuelan students have extra roadblocks. There are few to no flights to Venezuela.

Venezuelan students have extra roadblocks. There are few to no flights to Venezuela, returning migrants face quarantine imposed by the regime, and the country’s crisis would force them to study with slow internet, lack of sanitary precautions, and economic instability. 

To Elvira Blanco, the news added more uncertainty and anxiety to that already caused by the pandemic. She’s 29 years old and working on a doctorate in Latin American studies in Columbia University, a private school in New York. As of July 8th, the university hadn’t announced how they’d be working in the fall but said it was working to accommodate its international students.

Elvira is at a point in her academic program where she only has to teach, not take classes. She had considered going to Spain with her family and teaching from there if the semester was set to be online. But that plan isn’t easy to achieve amid the pandemic and ICE’s announcement added the pressure of potential deportation. She’s also scared that if she’s deported, she could lose her visa. Her doctorate is her source of income, and losing it could mean losing her scholarship and financial stability, but having the university open completely would mean putting students back in classrooms, and asking the international students who left when lockdowns started to come back from their home countries, increasing the risk of infections. Even with a hybrid model, she has to teach in person, and she fears the only result is that she’ll contract the virus. 

She considered returning to Venezuela when the pandemic started, but with a collapsed healthcare system and the increasing number of cases (only reported by the regime), she decided to stay. Returning now is one of her last options. 

Daniel Nuñez, 21, is in a similar situation. He’s preparing to start a Master’s degree in biomedical engineering at the University of Florida in August, after getting his bachelor’s in materials engineering this spring. UF, a public university, announced on Wednesday that it would make sure its reopening plan includes enough classes for international students to comply with the ICE guidelines. 

Even though his family is still there and “it will always be an option,” he views returning as going back to what he tried to escape by migrating in the first place.

The university’s announcement brought Daniel a wave of calm. He had envisioned three scenarios for his fall semester. If UF only had online classes, he could apply for an Optional Practical Training (OPT), an employment permission that would allow him to work for a few months, and find a job (in regular circumstances, international students can only work through work-study or an internship program). If UF provided enough in-person classes for him to remain in the country, he would take them and stay. If those two didn’t happen, he could travel to Spain or Argentina where friends could take him in for a few months.

Returning to Venezuela isn’t a plan. 

Even though his family is still there and “it will always be an option,” he views returning as going back to what he tried to escape by migrating in the first place, four years ago. He could go for a few months while the pandemic dies down, but he’d rather go to a country where he has more opportunities to study and work. 

Oriana Mejias is also weighing her options. She’s working on a doctorate in Latin American culture in the City University of New York. Like UF, CUNY is public so it depends on the decisions of the federal and state governments, and Oriana must wait for New York officials and the university to decide the modality of the fall semester. If the semester is online, her options are also limited. Her passport has expired and her only way to stay out of the U.S. is going to Santiago, Chile, where she had lived before and started an immigration process.

Even if institutions provide enough in-person courses for students to stay, ICE’s announcement also said that, if schools start the semester with in-person classes but are later forced to move online, the students won’t be allowed to take more than one online course and will have to leave the country—or seek alternatives to stay as nonimmigrant students. 

On July 8th, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the Department of Homeland Security and ICE. The schools argue that ICE didn’t give institutions enough warning or time to adjust to the guidelines and, hence, violated a federal statute. This could lead a judge to block ICE’s decision to eliminate the exemptions, or push the agencies to remove them. 

In the meantime, international students continue to wait for their schools to announce their modality, and evaluate where to go now, what to do with their housing if they need to leave, or how to return to their countries in the middle of a pandemic. Those in schools that are definitely going hybrid face the risk of infection on campus, and the possibility of having to make these decisions in the middle of the semester.