The Korea Herald


[Newsmaker] New visa guidelines perplex Koreans attending US schools

By Ko Jun-tae

Published : July 7, 2020 - 16:11

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The recent announcement that foreign students taking online classes in the US should leave the country is creating confusion and turmoil among South Korean students at colleges and universities there.

Many of them are now being forced to head back to Korea or shift to in-person classes, taking the risk of contracting the new coronavirus, if they want to maintain their visa status. The latest announcement from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement applies to F-1 and M-1 non-immigrant visa holders that were able to pursue academic and vocational coursework in the US.

“Since the Donald Trump administration came to power, treatment of international students has gotten worse, but this recent decision directly impacting the visa status seems like the US government is trying to avoid any responsibility,” said Hwang, a fourth-year applied mathematics student at Columbia University in New York.

Currently staying in Korea, the 26-year-old student of Columbia University is not directly impacted by the new visa guidelines. He was planning to return to Manhattan soon anyway since his school plans to incorporate in-person classes in the upcoming semester, he said.

“But I’m personally worried of not being properly treated for the virus if I get infected.”

International students like him may find it hard to get medical treatment or hospitalization if infected, considering how bad the virus situation has become in the US, Hwang said.

The US has reported the greatest number of confirmed cases around the world to date, and some areas are now struggling with a shortage of hospital beds.

The ICE announcement comes amid American colleges and universities scrambling to come up with strategies for the new academic year. The move is expected to add pressure for the schools to reopen even amid the persistent threat of COVID-19.

Trump has insisted on social media that schools and colleges resume in-person instruction as soon as possible, accusing dissenters, including Democrats, of wanting to keep schools closed “for political reasons, not for health reasons.”

Since the pandemic reached the US, the Trump administration has been pushing through large-scale restrictions on immigration, halting issuance of new green cards and suspending some work visas through the end of the year.

Huh Jae-yeon, 18, who got admission to the University of California, Berkeley, for this fall, is committed to staying in Korea for online classes. But she said many of her friends are on edge and are worried as to whether their visas will be issued on time if they are required to fly to the US for in-person classes.

“Some of my friends are worried of their schools transitioning to require physical presence for some of the classes,” Huh said. “If required to take offline classes, they would need student visas to enter the US, but there has been so much delay in visa processing at the embassy, so everything is uncertain at this point.”

Since March, the US Embassy to Korea has suspended all routine immigrant and non-immigrant visa appointments following the US Department of State’s announcement.

As a result, Korean students who got admission to US universities were left with no choice but to sit around and wait for visa services to resume.

According to the US Chronicle of Higher Education, around 9 percent of 1,090 US colleges are planning to operate online, and 24 percent are proposing a hybrid model. Sixty percent are still in pursuit of rolling out in-person instruction.

Students who are not directly affected by the new visa rules also expressed concerns over the spread of the virus among college students, if schools reopen en masse.

“I was planning to go back to the States anyway and Northwestern will offer offline classes for the fall quarter,” said Lee Wung-jae, a computer science student at Northwestern University.

“The only thing I’m worried about is the virus itself, but as long as I put on masks everywhere I go, wash my hands frequently and try to avoid going out as much, then I think it will be OK.”

American Council on Education President Ted Mitchell criticized the new rule in a statement.

The “disappointing and counterproductive” ICE announcement only adds “confusion and complexity rather than certainty and clarity” for colleges and universities that have seen their revenue sharply drop from the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting enrollment and school operations, said

“ICE should allow international students with a valid visa to continue their education regardless of whether a student is receiving his or her education online, in person, or through a combination of both, whether in the United States or in their home country, during this unprecedented global health crisis,” Mitchell said.

By Ko Jun-tae (