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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
After learning that Immigration and Customs Enforcement had changed its rules to require students completing online-only coursework to leave the United States, Student 6 grew “immediately concerned” that their young family was about to be “separated or uprooted.”
Student 6 — the moniker by which they are known in court documents to protect their anonymity — is an Australian citizen working towards their Ph.D. at Harvard.
But their daughter, who was born in March, is an American citizen. Pandemic-related delays have prevented them from securing a passport for their daughter, and they believe the process may take several more months.
“If I am forced to leave the United States, I could be separated from my infant daughter, something I cannot imagine,” Student 6 wrote. “Given the ongoing uncertainty around passport processing times, I do not know how long we would be separated.”
Departing the country could also imperil the student’s academic work, like teaching at the Harvard Extension School, conducting research, and working with faculty to establish a new laboratory.
“The impacts of this directive would be devastating for my family and my research,” they wrote.
Student 6’s story is one of eight sworn declarations from students at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, submitted to the Massachusetts District Court Monday as part of a lawsuit brought by Harvard and MIT against the Department of Homeland Security and ICE.
Though the government agreed on Tuesday to rescind the policy change, the stories of the students who submitted declarations — four of whom were from Harvard — reveal how much was at stake. They represent just a fraction of the nearly 4,000 F-1 visa holders who study at the University.
Student 1 — the only undergraduate among the group — is a rising sophomore and student-athlete at Harvard College who made headlines last week after being stopped at the airport in Minsk, Belarus, the first known instance of the new rules’ enforcement.
The declaration described the student’s experience in more detail than previously revealed. The student had an F-1 visa valid through July 29 and was about to fly from Minsk to Frankfurt, from Frankfurt to New York, and from New York to Miami, where they planned to visit their sister and then fly to Chicago to stay with a teammate for the semester.
When they attempted to check in for their flight, an airline agent told them that F-1 visa holders were not on the list of approved travelers, according to the declaration. In correspondence with the U.S. Consular Office, they were told that they needed to reroute their travel to avoid coronavirus-related travel restrictions and to confirm they were not taking online-only courses.
“You need to have a letter from your university that you will not be 100% study on-line, and you physically will be attending classes (off-line program),” the email from the U.S. Consular Office read.
The student wrote they do not believe they will be able to return to the United States, and that it will be “difficult, if not impossible” to complete their coursework from Belarus.
“Minsk is seven time zones ahead of Cambridge, so I would likely have to take classes and participate in any virtual extracurricular activities at odd hours,” Student 1 wrote. “Additionally, my varsity sport and other extracurricular activities are integral to my experience at Harvard, and I am eager to begin participating in those activities as soon as they resume.”
Student 3 is a rising second-year student at Harvard Law School from India-Administered Kashmir. They left to study abroad at age 15, when “violent civil unrest broke out” in the area.
The student was unable to communicate with their parents for nearly half of a year when the Indian government cut off the region’s access to internet and telecom services in August 2019, according to their declaration.
“If I return to my parents’ home in Kashmir, I will not have consistent access to
Internet that can support high-quality video conference calls,” Student 3 wrote. “Although the Indian government restored limited access to 2G networks in January, 2G Internet handles video streaming very poorly.”
“Considering the continuing civil unrest, the Indian government, which directly administers Kashmir as a Union territory, could easily again cut off all Internet access to the region,” they wrote.
Student 3 added that there is a nine-and-a-half-hour time zone difference between Cambridge and Kashmir. Their ability to maintain a schedule synchronized with the Law School would be further complicated by the Indian government’s continued lockdown order, they wrote.
Student 4, meanwhile, is a second-year M.D.-Ph.D. student at Harvard Medical School from Ethiopia, currently living in Cambridge and conducting cancer research.
They wrote they are concerned for their safety due to “significant civil unrest” in Ethiopia, and that if they are forced to return there, they will have to defer their second year at the Medical School due to unreliable internet access and a seven-hour time difference.
“The Ethiopian government has recently shut down the Internet in response to the civil unrest,” they wrote. “Even if the government were to allow access to the internet, the Internet connection would be unreliable, making it difficult if not impossible, to participate in my online courses.”
In a declaration on Monday, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 wrote that more than 1,000 of Harvard’s F-1 visa holders — around one quarter — are from countries with blocked or restricted internet, such as Ethiopia, China, and Syria.
The other four students who submitted declarations attend MIT, which has about 3,500 students on F-1 visas.
Student 2 is an engineering graduate student at MIT originally from Lebanon, who is currently researching in collaboration with the school and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“Lebanon is currently experiencing an extreme economic crisis and famine,” Student 2 wrote. “I would not be able to access the basic tools to complete my work online, including electricity and reliable internet.”
“NASA is counting on our work, and it would be very disruptive if I could not continue this fall,” they added.
Their declaration also described personal hardships, including food insecurities and safety concerns.
Student 5 is a graduate student at MIT from a mountainous region in Brazil. Though they only have one class standing between them and their Ph.D., they wrote that they had planned to conduct research this semester that requires regular faculty meetings.
“The internet connection is not strong enough to hold long video conferences, making it difficult to collaborate with faculty members and others,” Student 5 wrote. “It will also be difficult, if not impossible, to access certain research materials.”
They also noted they will experience “large financial loss” — up to $14,100 — if they are unable to remain in the United States, having already signed a lease.
Financial and public health concerns will also indefinitely separate them from their partner.
Student 7 is a doctoral student from Hungary studying at MIT. They wrote that they will be unable to return to their parents’ residence due to “traumatic experiences” they experienced as a child. Their brothers are also unable to support them financially if they were to live with them.
“I am a lesbian, and the culture and political environment in Hungary is very homophobic,” Student 7 wrote. “For example, the government has recently sought to repeal measures protecting LGBTQ rights, and police often fail to investigate hate crimes committed against LGBTQ people. Returning there would thus require me to suppress core aspects of my identity to preserve my safety.”
The student also wrote that they are currently an active outpatient, following a hospitalization for their mental health, and they only have health insurance in the United States.
“Leaving the country would deprive me of access to critical medical care that I require,” they wrote.
They wrote that they would lose their support system if they leave the country.
“I depend on a social support system in the United States consisting of my partner, friends, and others,” Student 7 wrote. “Although social support is important to everyone, it is especially critical for me, given my recent mental health issues.”
Student 8 is a graduate student at MIT from South Africa who cited electricity shutdowns, poor internet connection, and the six-hour time difference as significant challenges. They also would be unable to work as a resident assistant in graduate student housing.
“In addition to the aforementioned hardships, having to be in South Africa, rather than on-campus at MIT, is endangering my physical and psychological wellbeing,” they wrote. “Just this past week, seven armed men invaded my home and robbed my family and I at gunpoint.”
“My family and I could have been killed. Since the robbery, I have experienced severe panic and anxiety,” Student 8 added. “I am desperate to return to the United States so that I can continue my studies without fear of such an armed assault on my home.”
The motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to halt the immediate enforcement of the new rules will be argued at 3 p.m. on Tuesday in front of Federal Judge Allison D. Burroughs.
—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.
—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.
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