Hawai‘i Universities Adjust Fall Plans, Again, as ICE Removes Exceptions for International Students

Many students are at risk of being sent back to their home countries if they don’t attend classes in person next semester.
Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino


It’s been a tough few months for students attending colleges and universities during the pandemic, from campus closures and disrupted studies to housing issues and financial concerns. As if things weren’t chaotic enough, international students in the U.S. now have one more thing to worry about: getting deported.


Typical student visas don’t allow international students to take more than one course online, but that rule was suspended this spring when schools across the country were forced to close their doors. Even with the number of COVID-19 cases rising across America and no vaccine, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency issued a message on July 6 stating that this fall, international students “must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status or potentially face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.” So if you’re medically fragile or high-risk and can’t attend in-person classes during a pandemic, your school doesn’t offer them or you’re unable to transfer, the government may kick you out of the country.


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The news came less than one month after Brigham Young University–Hawai‘i announced it would continue remote learning in the fall. Marketing and communications director Laura Tevaga says the school is exploring options, since many of its students come from places such as Kiribati and, with Fiji’s borders closed, may not even be able to fly home. The ICE guidelines say that schools offering both in-person and online classes can keep their international students as long as “the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load for the fall 2020 semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program.” But Tevaga says BYU–Hawai‘i was caught off guard by the ICE guidelines, along with many other universities across the nation (MIT and Harvard are suing to block the rules), and aren’t sure what classes will look like yet.


BYU–Hawai‘i issued a brief statement to its students on Tuesday saying that the school will post information as soon as it is available, and followed up on Friday to assure them that International Student Services is coordinating with university, government and legal representatives to determine the best course forward. We know that the new guidance has caused anxiety and frustration for many of our international students. … There are many questions we can’t answer until we have more specific guidance and information. We ask for our students’ continued patience and assure you that we are doing all we can to move forward quickly.


Students in the University of Hawai‘i system, Chaminade and Hawai‘i Pacific University were already planning to head back to campus this fall. Good news for UH, which had almost 1,000 international students enrolled at its Mānoa campus this spring, especially since its undergraduate tuition can cost up to $16,668 per semester—almost triple resident tuition.


 There’s good news for HPU, too.


“We were anticipating that people might not opt to go [to university], or take a gap year,” because of the pandemic, says HPU Senior Vice President and Provost Jennifer Walsh. “We’ve seen the opposite. Because Hawai‘i has done so well, we have a bumper crop of incoming freshmen, a record number of international students”—more than 500 of its 5,000 students—and increasing enrollment in other programs.


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Compared to the rest of the U.S., Hawai‘i is “much more attractive to families and students. They might not want to go to college in a hot spot location,” Walsh says. HPU’s Stay Local campaign launched back in March, inviting students to finish their degrees here, or at least spend a year at HPU, and Walsh says the school saw a number of students enroll or transfer because of it.


HPU, like every other school, is making changes for safety. It is shifting its schedules so there’s more time between classes, with temperature checks to be performed at each location. Students will also be asked to fill out questionnaires and can do a health screening through an app.


As for international students, Walsh says HPU is prepared to accommodate them online from their home countries if they are unable to travel to Hawai‘i right away. “You don’t have to sit out,” she says, and can join the other students in person once it is safe to do so and they’ve completed quarantine. “We are committed to making sure every single student has an excellent education. In this time of uncertainty, we’re gonna have to be flexible and nimble. Because we’re a small university, we take that individualized touch to the next level. Whether you’re an international student with a delayed arrival or a local student who can’t attend for a short period for medical reasons … we can accommodate all of those scenarios as well as healthy students excited to come back in the classroom.”


Read more stories by Katrina Valcourt