‘Anxiety and fear’: International students told to leave if classes online

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — International students in West Michigan are scrambling to figure out what’s next after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement rolled out new guidance Monday saying that if their fall classes are only online, they have to leave the country.

ICE and the Student and Exchange Visitor Program also say new student visas won’t be granted for online-only instruction. The agencies cited the COVID-19 pandemic in making the changes. 

“It brings in a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear. It’s just an unknown situation and just like every other institution and every other employer out there, there’s just uncertainty that we do not know,” said Cornerstone University international student Mordecai Njoroge, one of thousands of international students in Michigan who could be impacted by the changes.

Njoroge is from Kenya. He graduated with his bachelor’s degree from Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids this spring and plans to begin pursuing a master’s of divinity this fall. 

“It’s a rare opportunity. Most people would love to come (to the U.S.) but it’s quite costly and it’s a long process to come here so it limits so many people who are not able to,” Njoroge said.

He said there are some valid reasons students may need to stay, like reliable access to internet and their professors.

But local immigration attorneys say there is little flexibility in the new guidance. 

“Really there’s no broad relief for people in this situation as of right now. This was just announced yesterday so everyone is trying to figure out what’s going to happen,” attorney Lee Marvin said.

Marvin said that in order for students to be exempt, they would have to do the majority of their learning in person. He predicts this will cause a large decline in enrollment for universities. 

“Having these very quick decisions to have these massive changes to immigration, you don’t even know what kind of ripple it’s going to have but none of them are good for economy or international relations,” Marvin said.

Njoroge says while Cornerstone University is offering hybrid learning — a mixture of online and in-person course work — the future is still concerning.

“I think everyone just wants to be in a space where they are protecting everyone and providing good health but at the same time everybody just wants to be able to go back to running classes and being able to interact with each other,” Njoroge said. 

Western Michigan University, which hosted more than 1,500 international students for the 2019-2020 school year, is also preparing for next steps. In a Tuesday statement to News 8, it said in part:

“Since WMU announced a return to campus with a mix of in-person online and hybrid classes, WMU would fit within the third category of the department’s fall guidance memo, and students could maintain status with option 3 so long as they are not in an entirely online program and are taking minimal online classes. For students who are abroad and might not be able to come here during fall, WMU will be assisting them in checking if there are enough online classes in their programs so they can continue to progress on their degree while outside of the U.S.

“Even with most in-person courses ending on Nov. 20 at WMU ahead of Thanksgiving break, international student will have the possibility to continue studying on campus while on their visas if they do not have all their classes online. Keeping a mix of online, hybrid and in-person courses after Thanksgiving, even if the mix is different form the first part of the semester, will enable WMU to keep the flexibility allowed by DHS and seek potential course loads that fit DHS regulations and students’ academic program requirements. “

GVSU said administrators are planning to meet in the coming days to discuss a plan to respond to the guidance. 

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel tweeted Monday that international students should be able to stay because the university is offering hybrid learning options.

Marvin said the changes are presumed effective immediately. The Department of Homeland Security plans to publish official guidelines in the coming weeks.