Lukas Nel ‘24, an international student from a small village just outside of Cape Town, South Africa, arrived on Yale’s campus four days into the start of the semester. He was in the US for the first time ever. He was excited to come to Yale for its exceptional STEM programs and the US more generally since he is a fluent English speaker. But his late arrival, which was caused by difficulties receiving his I-20 and DS-160 immigration forms, hampered his transition to Yale.
For international students, the process to get an F-1 visa to study in the US has never been easy. The need for an I-20 form, supplemented by a DS-160 and an in-person interview appointment at a US embassy, are just some of the hurdles these students have always faced. By design, the US immigration system is broken, making it hard for international students to come to America. But the Trump administration and the COVID-19 pandemic have not only revealed issues around F-1 visas and taxing financial aid packages, but they have also worsened them. In response, international Yalies have rightfully come together to make studying in America less stressful––but Yale and domestic students need to do more to support them now and after both the Trump administration and COVID-19 disappear. Neither domestic students or Yale have done everything possible to support these international students, but that can easily change with some simple steps.
Nel’s journey to America started with the I-20 form, which is the formal document that international students must fill out after being accepted to a college or university in the US to receive an F-1 student visa.
“It took weeks and weeks for them to finally ship that FedEx form [for the I-20 form] to me,” said Nel in an interview with The Politic. “After quite a bit of [waiting], I finally managed to get my I-20 form but that didn’t mean anything.”
After receiving the document, Nel still needed to fill out a DS-160 form, which is an application for a nonimmigrant temporary travel visa. That wasn’t all. He also needed to set up a personal interview at the South African US embassy to receive a travel visa. For weeks and weeks, Nel waited, checking his postbox outside of his farm house. Forms or updates never came and it almost cost him the ability to study in the US this semester.
Such bureaucratic incompetence is not unique to Trump. They existed even under the Obama and Bush administrations. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the I-20 form process an even bigger nightmare for Nel.
At the time, South Africa was on a “Level Five” lockdown, the country’s designation for the most severe circumstances which warrant mass shutdowns. This meant that all embassies in South Africa, including the US embassy, were to be closed indefinitely. Nel never heard from the embassy or South African officials about a concrete reopening date. He became increasingly more worried.
Fortunately, Nel was informed about an expedited student visa from a friend. “I had to scramble to get all the documents together to go [to the embassy],” said Nel. “If I hadn’t applied for expedited, I wouldn’t have been here.”
Even with the expedited visa purchase, Nel did not hear back from the US embassy until he received a direct email on August 18, informing him that he was to be interviewed on August 24. He was to start his first semester at Yale just a week after his first interview.
But the interview itself did not put Nel at ease about coming to America.
Nel recalled that the experience was “terrifying.” He sat in a waiting room for hours, trying to keep calm by conversing with other South African students who were seeking an I-20 visa. When it was finally time for him to be interviewed, he was met with strange questions like how much his father made in a given year. Nonetheless, he came out of the interview knowing that it could have been worse. He said that if he was going to a lesser known school, he would have been subject to much greater scrutiny.
After the nerve-wracking interview, Nel finally obtained all of the visas and paperwork he needed to come to the US. But by the time he made it stateside, his delayed start had already negatively affected his academics and social life at Yale.
“[My delayed arrival] did impact me for quite a bit,” said Nel. “I missed shopping period so like I had a day to decide all the classes I was going to take for the entire semester.”
Nel is not the only Yalie who has struggled dealing with the US immigration system. According to data from the Yale Office of International Students & Scholars (OISS) there were 659 undergraduate international students in Yale College in Fall 2019, which made up 11 percent of the student body. Across all Yale schools, 22 percent of all Yalies hail from abroad. Even before the rise of Trumpism and COVID-19, Yale has been a forerunner in protecting its international students. But under the Trump administration, the university has struggled to keep up with a barrage of racist policies and has not done nearly as much as it could do to support these students.
The OISS serves as a key information hub and advocate for Yale’s international student population. OISS frequently posts updates about new immigration policies coming out from the Trump administration. This has included a President Salovey letter against a July ICE proposal to bar international students from studying in America if they are not enrolled in at least one in-person class. The proposal led Yale to create Humanities 115, one of a few classes with an in-person component that international students who received a new F-1 visa after March 9,2020 like Nel must take in order to fulfill the July 24 regulation. The university has also provided clarifying information about potential changes to F-1 visas, which was revealed by the Department of Homeland Security this September. That proposal would place a fixed four year period on F-1 visas before they expired––with new procedures that would make it very difficult for students to be able to renew their visa. Countries that are designated as state-sponsors of terrorism by the US government and ones that have a visa overstay rate greater than 10 percent would have its students only be able to access a two-year F-1 visa.
Students like Nel appreciate the work that the OISS office is doing to inform the international community about changes in US federal immigration policy. But some say that Trump administration policy changes are so frequent that it’s hard to keep up and difficult for Yale to take more proactive steps to support international students.
“It’s become a whole different ball game from what it was a couple years ago. It’s almost like the country just doesn’t want to see anyone coming in,” said Yale African Students Association (YASA) Co-President and Kenyan national Felix Morara ‘22 in an interview with The Politic.
Morara knows that the Trump administration’s policies on international students reek of racism. He cannot believe that the administration can frequently get away with such clear prejudice through the aforementioned F-1 visa changes, the July ICE announcement, and the Muslim travel ban. These changes have only made coming to America harder than it’s ever been before for students like him. He says that the ICE decision has impacted him the most out of all COVID-19 era Trump policies.
While the rule that international students must take at least one in-person class did not actually come into fruition, its mere announcement left Morara in a dilemma. Over the turbulent first few weeks of July, he had to decide whether to come to the US for a semester, risking his life, or stay home and potentially lose his hard-to-get F-1 visa.
It was not an easy decision. Morara decided that he had to come to the US even though he would have liked to continue remote learning. “It felt very uncomfortable to arrive at JFK in the middle of a pandemic,” said Morara. “I would have preferred to have the flexibility to choose where to enroll from.” He put himself at great risk of contracting COVID-19. By the time the Trump administration had backpedaled on their policy change, it was too late for him to reverse course. He explained that for many of his YASA and international peers, they had already made up their minds and set up arrangements for the fall semester by that point.
Morara believes that the ICE announcement was also inhumane, noting that it treated the pandemic as if it were business as usual rather than a global health crisis. Every week, Morara has a 20-minute in-person meeting, putting him at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. He says that he cannot imagine what many of the mostly first-year international students in Humanities 115 class must go through during in-person lecture and discussion sections.
Morara is fortunate enough to have a community through YASA and OISS to get him through the turbulence of the fall semester. He says that both groups have helped him stay in the loop about the Trump administration’s latest policy change. Without them, he would find it hard to keep up with the announcements like a fast paced game of whac-a-mole.
Morara says that policy proposals are often embedded in vaguely worded press releases or obscure documents on a random government website. YASA students are often disproportionately targeted by strange policy changes, so it’s not unusual for a member to send information about a new Department of Homeland Security rule in the middle of a week out of concerns for their peers. Other times it’s information from the OISS. For Morara, the need to constantly check on government policy proposals has been exhausting and frustrating.
“I’m just trying to concentrate on my studies, but you just have to keep in touch with the whole host of things happening at the immigration policy level,” said Morara.
Fortunately, what Morara has in YASA––community and solidarity––other students have through Yale’s International Students Organization (ISO). For years, the ISO has served as a vibrant space for international students to converse and stand together. Through its multiple councils such as the cultural council, students have been able to learn about their countries of origin and help each other navigate the US immigration system.
This year, the ISO has created an advocacy council with the goal of informing Yalies about the plight that international students like Nel and Morara have faced. One way that the ISO has done this is by publishing a Yale Daily News op-ed against the Trump administration’s F-1 visa proposal.
“The goal of ISO this year is to make Americans aware of the struggles that international students are facing due to this pandemic,” said advocacy council co-president Veronika Denner ‘23. “That’s why we wrote this piece.”
Denner and her cobyliner, Aurelia Dochnal ‘23, said that the op-ed also serves to highlight how the COVID-19 pandemic has only further revealed the Trump administration’s racist immigration policies. But they also acknowledge that these immigration problems won’t magically disappear with Trump’s reelection defeat.
Thus, the newly formed advocacy council has been tasked with the goal of making short-term and long-term change on campus. Besides its information campaign, the advocacy team is taking its struggle directly to Yale.
For example, Dochnal explained that there is an immigration policy that disproportionately makes African and Middle Eastern students’ financial aid packages taxable by the federal government, usually to the tune of $2,000. In response, the council is working with the financial aid office to develop new policies and rules that would help these students off-set their additional costs. For Dochnal, this move is a part of a larger trend of the ISO looking out for its most vulnerable members, who are from African and Middle Eastern countries.
Denner and Dochnal are both happy to see that others are standing together with them to make the journey to America and transition as smooth as possible. “It’s encouraging to see so many people stand with international students and care about our struggle both at yale and across the US,” said Dochnal. “Especially to the proposed [F-1 visa] regulation.”
However, there is more work to be done. Both Denner and Dochnal said that while Yale did file an amicus brief against the July ICE announcement, it did so later than some of its peer institutions, including Harvard. They would have liked to see Yale jump on the brief earlier rather than wait.
OISS does its absolute best to support international students, but the office alone cannot remedy all of the issues international students face. OISS’ senior advisor, Ozan Sai, has helped many ISO students address F-1 visa problems and answered a plethora of questions surrounding the confusing US immigration process. But as Morara rightfully pointed out, Yale can sometimes lag behind with its immigration policy information press releases because of vaguely-worded Trump administration documents.
Besides OISS, community spaces for international students like YASA for Morara, ISO for Denner and Dochnal, and even Humanities 105 for Nel are pivotal to making the transition to America easier. However, even these spaces by themselves won’t address issues around F-1 visas or unreasonably taxed financial aid packages, which have existed even before Trump and COVID-19.
Yale needs to address the longstanding tax on financial aid packages on international students and sign onto amicus briefs against racist Trump administration policies more quickly rather than waiting for a greenlight from peer institutions. The school should also work with members of the ISO advocacy council and other international student groups to develop other concrete policies that will support these students.
Domestic students need to step up and stand in solidarity with their international peers who have been hurting for far too long as well. That means staying informed about their plight and working with international students to make change at Yale and in the federal government. Simple actions like reading up on immigration policy, writing to a member of Congress, commenting against racist Trump administration regulations, and cooperating with hard asks from international students will go a long way in making the lives of international students at Yale easier.
With the support of Yale and domestic Yalies, international students will have an easier transition to America––even after the Trump and COVID-19 eras pass.