A host of people have also been let go from their current jobs and they might also be nearing the 90-day cap they are allowed to accumulate.
By Nandika Handa
The onset of the COVID pandemic and the immigration suspension has left a lot of international students enrolled or applying to the US in a state of flux. In the month of March, universities announced online learning and a lot of students had to vacate their student accommodation. Some of them were able to return home and some could not. This whole situation has led to a host of questions in the minds of international students. The situation has also been further complicated after the announcement of the immigration suspension by President Trump in April.
There are a lot of students who are on student visas or what is known as the F-1Visa and have returned to their home countries. They are attending and learning remotely at the moment.
Presently, with the immigration suspension and the classes being online a lot are not thinking of returning to the US. But, what when they need to return to their respective campuses? As long as the expiry date on the F-1 is within bounds of their return date, the US government has given confirmation of the fact that those completing their programmes online at this time (from within or outside the US) will retain their F-1 status until there is more clarity on this situation.
There are some students who wish to take the spring and summer quarters completely off due to the current situation with the pandemic and would like to return in the fall quarter. They too have questions on how to handle that situation. They might have to apply for a new I-20. They will have to check with their international students’ office closer to the time.
As time passes, students might find that their respective schools are welcoming students. However, some may be unable to return back for that quarter. They might be eligible to apply for the immigration leave of absence process, medical reduced course load, vacation quarter – It is very important to note that the students must be eligible for these processes and must be able to supply watertight proof in their application. These options cannot be a probability until they are factually corroborated.
In the US the students are allowed an OPT (Optional Practical Training). With the OPT the students have a one year period to work depending upon their field of study. Typically, they should manage to find employment and then depending upon a multitude of factors, secure and H1 or another employment visa once their OPT is over and this is how they plan their long terms stay in the US.
A a lot of these students are under extreme stress because they cannot find employment at this time due to the totally strained economy. The rider to the OPT is that they must find employment within 60 days of completion of their studies. With the country and economy afflicted by the pandemic, this is a tough task to undertake. With the unemployment soaring, many might find themselves in a position where they are nearing the end of this period without a job in sight.
Their dilemma is that they can’t return home either as a lot of the borders are sealed and moreover they may fall out of status once they leave the country.
What are the options for students in this scenario? Most lawyers suggest that they take on voluntary work as this will help in maintaining their OPT status and is counted toward employment requirement. This will help them remain “in status” through this difficult year.
Currently there has been no guidance issued by the US government on any extensions or pardons on this period.
For those who are nearing the end of this period and have absolutely no hope in regards to gaining employment-Lawyers suggests they make arrangements to depart the US before their period lapses.
A host of people have also been let go from their current jobs and they might also be nearing the 90-day cap they are allowed to accumulate. Lawyers suggest they too, make arrangements to depart before that time expires.
Some of them might wish to seek an unemployment benefit which is a process that requires the expertise of a very seasoned immigration attorney under these circumstances and has no generic answer. They should, thus, engage suitable legal counsel to further their case.
A host of students have just one overriding question – When will universities resume in-person classes? There is no one answer for this. Universities in different states have different roadmaps to the progression of their year. They need to factor in the spread of COVID in that state and a multitude of legal and situational factors.
For example, UNC, Chapel Hill has announced that they wish to resume the fall semester early and fast track it. This is based on the advice of healthcare specialists who believe that the second wave will hit in the latter half of fall. Their aim is to beat the second wave as best they can. They are making many modifications to the health and safety guidelines and plan to follow a phased approach in the return of their faculty as well as factor in the much needed social distancing concept into campus life. Other universities like UC Berkeley has said that though they are eager to resume the staff and students must prepare to teach and learn remotely until further notice.
How can one ease the conundrum of questions that these students have in reference to their legal status and that of resumption of their campus life?
The answers to these questions lie in a mixed bag of circumstances which are not so finite – Such as – Will the “Trump government “, as its largely known push the agendas it has long been canvasing in the face of COVID? Or will the US be willing to lose partial revenue approximately in excess of USD 45 million that is generated by admitting international students into the country? And, finally one question which everyone poses (for students world over and at any stage of their education), but no one has an answer to -How will environments eventuate for students with the spread of this pandemic as it progresses?
(The author is Immigration Specialist. Views expressed are personal.)