Penn’s international students are worried about their long-term prospects in the United States following 1968 Wharton graduate and President Donald Trump’s recent announcement that will institute sweeping restrictions on work visa availability to foreign nationals.
The executive order, which was issued on June 22, restricts those who hold H-1B, H-2B, J, and L visas — all of which are issued to foreign nationals who wish to work in the United States — from entering the country until Dec. 31, 2020. The order does not apply to professors, scholars, or college students with J visas, however.
Trump's "Proclamation Suspending Entry of Aliens Who Present a Risk to the U.S. Labor Market Following the Coronavirus Outbreak" is part of a larger effort by the Trump administration to limit immigration to the U.S.
Rising College junior Aakruti Ganeshan said she believes the coronavirus pandemic has been weaponized to promote anti-immigration rhetoric.
Though most international Penn students, who usually come to the U.S. with an F-1 or J-1 visa, are not directly affected by these restrictions, Penn President Amy Gutmann issued a statement in solidarity with the international student community, denouncing the Trump administration’s moves to restrict the entry of foreign nationals.
“This is a major setback not only for higher education, but for our country as a whole,” Gutmann wrote. “We need to welcome the widest range of individuals to our shores.”
International Student and Scholar Services Director Rodolfo Altamirano said he is concerned that many international students are struggling to obtain and hold onto their appointments for visa issuances and renewals. A lack of direction from the State Department in the wake of the pandemic has caused U.S. embassies and consulates to unexpectedly cancel many in-person visa appointments at the last minute, he said.
Rising College senior Justine de Jesus, who is president of Penn Assembly of International Students, said the organization is meeting regularly with ISSS to ensure that students are kept up to date with information about immigration and visa requirements.
Although de Jesus said she is relieved that the executive order has not targeted the majority of Penn international students, she remains worried about the future.
“[The recent restrictions] definitely set the precedent that other visa categories can still be targeted in the future,” de Jesus said. “There’s still so much that’s up in the air. While these restrictions are in place until the end of the year, the President would have the power to extend them or implement further restrictions.”
Ganeshan, an international student from Singapore and beat reporter for 34th Street, said that while ISSS has been helpful, she wishes the organization's website and emails better reflected the most urgent needs of international students.
Ganeshan said she would have liked the University to provide students with information about how to complete the I-20 form, which allows international students to study in the U.S.
Rising College sophomore Nina Wei, an international student from China, said while ISSS as a whole is very passionate about international student advocacy, she wishes there was more personalized support available from their ISSS advisors as she believes international students all face individual struggles with immigration policies — particularly under the Trump administration.
Furthermore, Wei said she hopes the University itself considers providing more support to international students who are unable to return to their home countries. Some international students who stayed in the U.S. are having difficulties understanding the services available to them from the University, she said.
Wei serves as the head of the International Mentoring and Orientation Committee, which organizes international student orientation and traditionally pairs incoming international students with current Penn international students within the Assembly for International Students. This year, however, the Committee canceled their mentoring program fearing that the increasingly complex U.S. immigration climate would be too difficult to navigate for mentors.
Trump’s suspension of entry to the U.S. from China, which prohibits foreign nationals who have been in China within the last 14 days from entering the U.S., has made planning significantly harder for international students who live in China.
Wei said that under this ban, Chinese international students would be forced to leave China and quarantine in another country for 14 days before being able to enter the U.S. Many Chinese students have therefore decided to attend Penn remotely in the fall to avoid needing to quarantine before entering the U.S, she said.
Rising Engineering second-year graduate student Kanika Nadkarni, an international student from India, said she has felt a palpable uncertainty surrounding her immigration status with the seemingly random policies and decisions being announced by the government.
The students expressed doubt at being able to remain in the U.S. in the long-term if the government continues to issue immigration restrictions. Rising College sophomore Sophie Chen said she is worried about her long term employment prospects, while Ganeshan said she will reconsider pursuing post-graduate work in the U.S. if the country continues to create further immigration restrictions.
“This situation for me has made it abundantly clear that the country will never prioritize my needs as an international student and immigrant,” Ganeshan said. “I don’t want to continue in a country that is willing to restrict my contributions to the workforce when I was educated here.”
Altamirano said he worries that Trump’s order negatively impacts Penn’s international students’ mindsets, as the orders send students the message that the U.S. is not welcoming of them.
“It feels like international students and immigrants are not that valuable,” Nadkarni said. “It's important to consider how much international students and immigrants contribute.”
Altamirano said he and his colleagues at ISSS and the Penn Office of Government Affairs in Washington D.C. are urging government officials to dissuade the White House from issuing any orders that would even temporarily restrict non-immigrant visas.
Altamirano and his colleagues are also advocating for the Department of Homeland Security to bring greater transparency to visa issuance and renewal processes. Altamirano wants the department to expand employment authorization documents and extend initial filing deadlines in an effort to prevent backlogged systems that would come with a flood of individual visa extension requests.
The chief concern among many international students at this point is the uncertainty regarding the possibility for travel between their home countries and the U.S., Wei said.
Chen decided to stay in the U.S. because she was unsure if she would be able to reenter the U.S. if she left Penn in mid-March, when the University forced students to leave campus. Similarly, Ganeshan said she fears that she may not be able to return to her family in Hong Kong if she returns to campus in August.
“I would urge everyone to consider that if it were truly about the pandemic and about limiting the spread of the disease, then wouldn't the first line of defense be to control the disease within the domestic sphere, with more aggressive mask and distancing policies," Ganeshan said.
De Jesus expressed further resentment at the overall situation and Trump’s view of immigrants and international students.
“The messaging comes off as hostile,” de Jesus said. “These policies are a reminder that this President doesn’t want us here.”