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ICE Revises Visa Clampdown for International Students
‘What makes having an American education fun and different is the college community.’ Washington State University’s Pullman campus. (wsu.edu)

ICE Revises Visa Clampdown for International Students

US government agency to bar new students, including those from Middle East, from coming to study solely online, although those already in country can remain

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an arm of the US Department of Homeland Security, is barring foreigners from coming to the United States to take university courses solely online, although it will allow those already in the country and doing so to stay.

Online courses have become common at colleges and universities during the coronavirus pandemic, and with over 4.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the US as of the end of July, there is increasing concern about the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, there are roughly 1 million international students in the country with active visas. Over 80,000 are from the Middle East.

Earlier in the month, ICE issued a directive that appeared to say the new rule covered all foreigners on student visas if their entire course-load was online.

“Nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States,” ICE originally said, a statement that generated immediate blowback from academics and immigrant-rights groups.

On July 24, it clarified that “nonimmigrant students may remain in the United States to engage in full course of study online if they have not otherwise violated the terms of their nonimmigrant status since March 9, 2020. This includes students who have remained in the US in active status and are starting a new program of study that is 100% online.”

This means that international students in the US on active visas will no longer be subject to removal, the only people affected being those applying for new visas and not actively enrolled at American institutions prior to March 9.

Countries like Iran and Israel are currently experiencing what is being referred to as a “second wave” of COVID-19, which poses the question of whether or not students are safer in their home country than in the US.

Utkarsh Mehta is an international student enrolled at Washington State University.

“My university has decided to go completely online…. This is a confusion, and many of us are in an uncertain situation,” he told The Media Line.

My university has decided to go completely online…. This is a confusion, and many of us are in an uncertain situation

Aside from public health and safety, there are also concerns about the quality of education for the students who will be denied entry. Mehta listed internet connectivity and online censorship, different time zones and political unrest as potential disadvantages for students abroad taking online courses at US institutions.

“Poor and censored internet is an issue for many countries and many regions,” he stated. “Many [online] classes are [also] taken live; therefore, international students [would be attending] these classes at odd times.

He points out that while the cohort might be small, “an invaluable number of international students come from countries with bad political situations that might affect [their] growth and development.”

Reporters without Borders, a Paris-based non-governmental organization, lists Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the United Arab Emirates among some of the Middle Eastern countries with “systematic repression of internet users.”

Students aren’t the only ones critical of the new guidelines.

Koshila Ratnayake is an American English teacher working in the UAE. Several of her colleagues have children who are affected firsthand by ICE’s decision.

“I don’t believe these ICE guidelines are justified, as there are international students who seek education in America to escape dangerous, unsafe and considerably disadvantaged situations in their home countries,” Ratnayake told The Media Line.

There is also an economic perspective.

A decline in international students could mean a direct decline in money for university budgets. International students often pay premium tuition rates that contribute considerably to universities and the American economy as a whole.

The value of an online education is also coming into question. New international students are paying full price for considerably less than the educational experience they would otherwise receive.

“Students opted to learn in the country of America itself, so the guidelines are depriving them of their chance to gain the incomparable experience of living and studying in America – a chance they may never get again,” Ratnayake stated.

Students opted to learn in the country of America itself, so the guidelines are depriving them of their chance to gain the incomparable experience of living and studying in America – a chance they may never get again

Mehta shares similar opinions about online studies from abroad.

“[It’s] expensive and not completely an American education,” he said.

“What makes having an American education fun and different is the college community,” he explained. “American culture, Greek life, clubs, meeting American friends…. Students will definitely miss out on this.”

What makes having an American education fun and different is the college community. American culture, Greek life, clubs, meeting American friends…. Students will definitely miss out on this

An international student who asked to remain anonymous points to the impact the new ICE directive could have for the future of foreigners on campus.

“The incoming rates of international students are already decreasing, and this decision might impact the rates for the coming years,” the student told The Media Line. “[They] have already put in a lot of effort to enroll in a university, but after the new ICE guidelines, they’re back at square one.”

These sentiments are being echoed by those such as Nithy Sevanthinathan, the director of international student services at Houston Community College (HCC), which, as of 2019, had the most international students of any US community college.

“It takes years and years to build the services that we provide to ensure that students want to come here and are successful,” Sevanthinathan told the magazine Money.

ICE says its guidelines are intended to protect international students and Americans alike. Yet some people believe that safety can be achieved through less extreme measures.

“The decision to travel to the US or to stay home should be made based on… personal situations and not [by] a mandate arbitrarily imposed by ICE,” Ratnayake, the American English teacher in the UAE, said.

Currently, there are no concrete plans for international students during the upcoming spring 2021 semester, but there is still hope that things will turn around soon.

“This is a very difficult decision for universities to make as it holds huge implications,” Mehta said. “We are all quite hopeful that by the end of this year, everything will return to normal.”

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