By Tafadzwa Muguwe, M.D.
In a stunning move this week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced new regulations for foreign students attending U.S. colleges that will operate entirely online this fall. These students — 90% of whom have been riding out the pandemic in this country, often in quite precarious circumstances — now face a terrible choice. Either they must transfer to schools with in-person instruction or they must leave the country. The regulations need to be finalized later this month, and opposition to them is already mounting.
The administration’s focus on immigration is not new. The announcement comes just days after the Trump administration extended a freeze on green cards for new immigration and an executive order to suspend new temporary work visas through the end of the year. And insults, mistruths and detrimental policy directed against immigrants who are Mexican, Muslim or from certain countries are now a hallmark of this era. The result has been a decline in immigration, by up to 70% in 2018. But even in this context, the move targeting international students is shocking. Who will Trump go after next?
As a former F-1 student visa-holder who is also part of an immigrant community with many current holders of student and work visas, I am alarmed about these recent developments. The compound effect is an unnecessary additional risk for students and society during the pandemic, and the continued erosion of America’s status as an attractive destination for talent.
The F-1 visa was the key to unlocking my American dream. Through a college preparatory program, I had been accepted into Swarthmore College on a full scholarship. I had never left Zimbabwe and so I had to acquire my first passport before booking flights and then applying for a visa.
Nothing was certain because I didn’t have the finances to pay for a flight and I knew that getting a visa stamp was not guaranteed. After knocking on a few doors, I came away from the offices of Air Zimbabwe with my journey from Harare to London — one of their routes — covered. A generous local physician and mentor paid for a connecting flight to my destination in Philadelphia. Next was the nerve-wracking visa interview, the final test. “Where are you going?” “Who will receive you at the airport?” “How much money do you have?” “How will you fund your education?” “When will you come back?”
There are many horror stories for people navigating this process. Visas denied due to insufficient proof of funding. Or due to an error in the paperwork. Or for no discernible reason at all; sometimes all the boxes are checked and the visa is still denied. One must somehow thread the impossible balance between demonstrating complete self-reliance in the current station while also making a solid case for wanting to leave one’s country. You can’t be too needy. When I picked up my passport with the visa stamped inside, I felt like I had successfully navigated a dozen landmines. Indeed, I had won the lottery, thanks in large part to the generosity of individuals, institutions and the U.S. government.
My encounters with immigration authorities did not end with that first visa. As an international student, I learned that even “simple” errors can be costly, if not catastrophic. Two instances made this abundantly clear.
As an undergraduate on an F-1 visa, I was entitled to as much as 12 months of paid internships during college or within a year of graduation. After my sophomore year, I applied to use 10 weeks for summer research at a medical school in New York. Unfortunately, a government error counted that internship as 12 months. I only discovered the error a year later while preparing for another internship, which was now at risk. Thankfully, Swarthmore College hired an immigration lawyer who resolved the issue after many weeks of filings and counter-filings. Given the financial and expert resources involved, I could not have done it on my own.
During residency training, I was on an H-1B visa, which is “uncapped” for hospitals, meaning there is no strict limit to the number of people that can be on the visa. While I was transitioning to work in management consulting, I was advised that my H-1B visa would be “portable,” thus requiring no change to my immigration status. It turned out that since my new employer was for-profit, the portability wouldn’t apply. I only learned a few days before the start of orientation, when I received an email and a frantic voice message from human resources advising me to “leave the country immediately.” I dropped everything and stopped by my future wife’s workplace to say tearful goodbyes before leaving the country that same day, rightly fearful of jeopardizing my immigration status. Thankfully, I didn’t need to go far since I had a Canadian visa, so I stayed with friends in Ottawa while my employer resolved the situation within days.
In the grand scheme of things, my problems were minor. And yet, in those moments, I was vulnerable, and things could have turned out differently. In both cases, my institutional sponsors put up the resources necessary to resolve my problems.
International students and their sponsors today face a much more difficult situation.
F-1 visa students are here with a dream and are doing their part to play by the rules while adding to the richness of their campus communities and American life. Institutions are playing their part, too. Now the government needs to reverse course and do the right thing. Otherwise, this administration will jeopardize the vast economic impact that international students have — they brought $45 billion to the U.S. economy and supported over 450,000 jobs in 2018. It will jeopardize industries dependent on immigrant labor. And it will jeopardize our very fight against the pandemic, which relies on contributions of immigrants to keep the nation healthy.
Above all, it will jeopardize what can make a country great: treating our fellow human beings humanely during a time of great uncertainty and danger. That’s why it’s important for the government to reverse course quickly — for the sake of our students and for the sake of our society.
Tafadzwa Muguwe, M.D., is a Zimbabwean-born Rhodes Scholar and Harvard-trained physician. He is a hospitalist at Mount Auburn Hospital and is helping to transform cancer care at Foundation Medicine. All views expressed are his own.