Foreign Students And Scholars Confused By Visa Disruptions - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Soksamphoas Im

Soksamphoas Im is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

On June 22, President Donald Trump signed a proclamation suspending entry of aliens who present a risk to the U.S. labor market following the coronavirus outbreak.

As the proclamation takes effect, many international students, scholars and researchers who are currently in the United States are forced to remain in the U.S. to avoid jeopardizing their visa status on top of the travel safety concerns due to COVID-19.

Many international students who received admissions to American colleges and universities to start a fall 2020 enrollment and those who are continuing the program but are currently not present in the U.S., find themselves falling into a lot of confusion.

The Department of State temporarily suspended routine visa services at all U.S. embassies and consulates, and the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that they would modify temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students taking online classes due to the pandemic for the fall 2020 semester — something that was rescinded just this week after universities like Harvard and MIT sued the administration.

Students walk across the mall area of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Students walk across the mall area of the University of Hawaii Manoa in 2019. Foreign students and scholars attending UH or planning to attend are confused by the State Department’s changing position on travel visas. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As of this date, only a very few U.S. embassies in countries with the lowest COVID-19 infected cases have resumed their visa services for F, M, J visas, including my home country of Cambodia.

While the proclamation to suspend entry of aliens into the U.S. took effect on June 24, it does not apply to F-1, J-1, and M-1 visa categories for those who are seeking entry as a professor, research scholar, degree-seeking, and non-degree seeking student.

Unfortunately, the suspension of routine visa services at many U.S. embassies abroad has prompted uncertainties for many incoming international students.

Ambiguity And Fear

In the latest development, the Department of State also stated that “only emergency visa service” is provided at the U.S. embassies. The emergency visa service is only for applicants with urgent matters that include staffing air and sea crew, and medical personnel, particularly those working to treat or mitigate the effects of COVID-19.

Evidently, this emergency service does not apply to students and scholars in the above category.

Many international students coming to Hawaii for the fall 2020 semester remain in a state of uncertainty despite the University of Hawaii announcing the reopening of campuses on Aug. 24. This situation affects many international friends of mine who are currently not in the U.S.

My friend Saveun Nhim, for example — an incoming Ph.D. international student to the University of Hawaii Manoa and an East-West Center graduate degree fellowship recipient 2020-2021 from Cambodia — says he has only been able to apply for his J-1 visa this past week at the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh. But he is still concerned about coming to the U.S. in August amidst the current situation.

Saveun told me that he hopes he will not have to “drop the ball” on this opportunity. He said he really doesn’t want to take a big risk on job security in Cambodia and then be unable to come to the U.S. for the Ph.D. program.

He also said he is intimidated by the 14-day quarantine requirement in the student housing facility, especially if the COVID-19 infection rate continues to increase in the U.S.

Likewise, another friend — a continuing Ph.D. international student from India at the University of Hawaii Manoa who asked not to be named — is facing similar adversity during this strange time.

She went home to conduct preliminary field research prior to the U.S. government announcing a visa service suspension on March 20. She is supposed to return back to Hawaii to continue her program in the fall but is now stuck in her home country because she could not renew her visa with the U.S. embassy in New Delhi which has yet to resume its routine visa services.

My Indian friend said she is experiencing ambiguity and fear.

“The conventional and usual form of renewal doesn’t happen, since embassies have been closed,” she told me. “COVID-19 had already forced separation for many, and these moves seal the deal that visiting your family and friends would be extremely difficult in the near future.”

This troubling visa experience faced by international students is especially difficult for those who come from developing countries. The difference about these visa cases that we don’t often talk about is that not every international student coming to the U.S. receives the same visa validity up to the length of their program or multiple entries into the U.S.

For example, a Cambodian student who pursues a Ph.D. degree, which is a 5-7 year program at any American university or college, would have to renew or reapply for their student visa at the U.S. embassy every time they return home or leave the U.S. within the duration of the program — despite their I-20 or DS-2019 stating the length of the program.

This inflexible visa condition has caused additional distress and disruption of research study activities for many foreign students in the U.S., unlike international students who study in European countries, Canada and Australia.

My experience studying in the UK and in Belgium as an international student was completely different than my visa situation in the U.S. During the whole duration of finishing two post-secondary degrees I did not have to renew my visa once, despite leaving both countries multiple times for various conferences, workshops, or traveling home to Cambodia.

The U.S. government should reflect on the expertise and the skills these foreign scholars bring.

In addition, I did not have any restrictions on part-time employment on or off campus like here, and my scholarship stipend was also exempt from taxable income.

The differing nature of the United States’ treatment of international students in regard to their visa statuses speaks greatly to how the current administration’s proclamation sees them as a threat to the U.S. labor market and more so in the agenda of the anti-immigration policy.

The U.S. government should instead reflect on the expertise and the skills these foreign scholars have brought into this country.

This is not to mention that these scholars contribute the same income tax as U.S. citizens and permanent residents but they are not eligible for any social services in return — such as health care — unlike in Europe and the UK.

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About the Author

Soksamphoas Im

Soksamphoas Im is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


Latest Comments (0)

It is not the current administration to be blamed for visas as it is based on reciprocity between countries. Are US citizens able to go into Cambodia on a student visa and not have to renew their visa everytime they depart and re-enter ?? Likewise with working on/off campus - Europe has their own laws - again off campus employment for F1/J1 students are generally not permitted - is a policy from the old INS days again nothing to do with this current administration solely. A significant number of international students on a PhD but not all  at UH are on tuition waivers and a stipend ala financed by state taxpayers. Everyone pays taxes unfortunately - F1/J1  visa holders may have to file for income tax purposes  be it Federal and State BUT depending on "income" earned may actually end up not paying any taxes. One should not generalize as income taxes are unique to each and everyone.  aloha    

Ainokea · 2 years ago

Add this ti my list of topics about which I probably should care more, but actually don't. Seems the most fuss is really because foreign students pay full boat tuition and the schools don't want to lose that sweet cash inflow. But right now, I'm more concerned with US students and what their education future portends in the era of Covis-19.

CatManapua · 2 years ago

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