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“It’s Heartbreaking”: COVID Forces International Grads to Change Plans

Floundering economy, Trump’s hostility make remaining in the U.S. difficult

By Featured, SAIC

Illustration by Raven Mo.

Darshita Jain wanted to stay in Chicago after graduation. A native of Nadiad, Guajarat, India, Darshita (MA 2020, New Arts Journalism) tried to make the most of her F-1 student visa, complementing her schoolwork by cultivating a community in Chicago’s literary arts scene. 

“Before the virus hit, I was attending two or three literature-related events per week,” she said in a phone interview. Through a combination of Optional Practical Training (OPT), her new professional network, and a love for all things literary, Darshita had set her sights on an H-1B visa, which would permit her to live and work full-time in the U.S.

But with COVID-19 straining all facets of social infrastructure, unemployment rates sky-high, and President Trump’s promise to suspend all immigration to the U.S., Darshita’s plans have changed abruptly.

“I had applied for a couple of fellowships, and for a job at the Chicago Review of Books,” she said. “To be honest, I don’t see the point now. It’s heartbreaking.”

School of the Art Institute (SAIC) international students’ F-1 visas expire on their program end date, which, as clarified in an email from Director of International Affairs Lawrence Rodriguez, is May 10, 2020. After that, they have a 60-day grace period before they start accruing unlawful presence in the U.S. More than 180 days of unlawful presence can lead to deportation and years of being barred from reentry to the country. One year of unlawful presence can result in ten years barred from reentry.

So, for students like Darshita, OPT is an integral part of parlaying F-1 student visas into the more long-term H-1B work visas. Designed to complement students’ academic training, OPT grants a 12-month permit, during which time F-1 students — who would otherwise not be allowed to accept off-campus employment — may work full-time for U.S. employers. Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students may apply for a 24-month OPT extension. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services states that OPT applications will be processed and reviewed within 90 days.

When successful, OPT prevents non-citizens from accruing unlawful presence, allowing them to gain experience in U.S. working conditions, and allowing employers to vet prospective employees without springing for H-1B visa sponsorship, which costs them around $5,000. Applying for OPT includes a $410 filing fee, which, for many new graduates, is not a small investment, but is justifiable on the grounds of launching a career.

However, with the job market in such a tenuous state, graduating international students worry that, even if their OPT applications are accepted, the 12-month interval will not be enough time to find employment. They also worry that the U.S. government, under the burden of running a country in dire health and economic straits, and under a president who has continuously displayed hostility toward immigrants, is less likely to review OPT applications in a timely fashion. 

According to a subsequent email from Rodriguez at the International Affairs Office (IAO), “Over 120 graduating international students have applied for OPT to date.” Darshita commended the IAO, which she said has been “super helpful” in helping her assess her options.

Luis López (MA 2020, New Arts Journalism), a native of Monterrey, Mexico, has begun to doubt whether it’s worth it. “I am potentially facing unemployment for a while, so do I really want to spend $410 on something that might not get me anything?” he said in a phone interview. “That’s the thing that’s keeping me from finishing the application. But I recognize that the longer I take to make up my mind, the less likely it is that anything good will happen.”

In hopes of avoiding the accumulation of unlawful presence, second-year international graduate students wrote a letter to Dean of Graduate Studies Arnold Kemp, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies Dwayne Moser, and the IAO, requesting, among other things, “an extension of the date of the ICE Form 1-20 … till the end of the Fall semester,” which would extend their “as-of-now safe residency in the United States from our official ‘Program End Date’ of May 31, 2020, to a new Program End Date, namely the end of the Fall semester.”

An email response from Rodriguez clarified that students’ program end date is May 10, not May 31, advising students that the 60-day grace period therefore starts on May 10. However, the email did not address the request to delay the end date.

After following up with Director Rodriguez, he clarified that while “International Affairs is committed to supporting students through the crisis … no guidance has been offered by the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Student Exchange Visitor Program that permits an extension of a student’s program without the need to enroll in courses beyond their current program end date to complete their degree.” In short, they’re not allowed to do it, unless the government changes their policies.

For students like Darshita and Luis, this means making a difficult decision: Gamble the $410 application fee and 12 months’ worth of living expenses on trying to find employment under OPT, or scrap the work they did in the U.S. and return to their home countries. 

“I love it here,” Luis said. “If I had a good opportunity to continue developing professionally, I’d consider staying. But who the hell knows if that time will come?”

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