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International students cope with COVID-19 and their immigration status

Illustration by Claudia Hernandez
International students must obtain an F-1 visa to complete an academic program in the U.S.

Once the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) transitioned to online classes after the COVID-19 outbreak, international students began worrying about their status within the countrytheir visas and more 

International students must obtain an F-1 visa to complete an academic program in the U.S. One of the requirements to maintain this status is to be a full-time student during the fall and spring term. 

For undergraduate students, this consist of being enrolled in 12 credits and only three credits, in other words a single class, may be taken online. Meanwhile, graduate students need to be enrolled in nine credits and only three credits, or one class, may be taken online.  

The Office of International Students (OIP) at UTEP offers orientation at the beginning of each semester to international students in which they explain this rule and they usually send an email as well to remind international students that not following this rule can make them lose their status and not be able to reapply for a student visa in the future.  

But after the COVID-19 breakout and the shelter-in-home situation, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) allowed F-1 students to maintain their immigration status as the schools moved classes online, as UTEP did.  

The DHS made a special exception and allowed international students to remain in the U.S or to return to their home country to complete distance learning.  

After March 21, U.S and Mexico officials agreed to restrict all nonessential travel at the border, including at the bordering cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. After this change, many international students needed to decide whether to stay in the U.S or go back to their country. 

This issue was the case of David Hiriart from Tijuana, a UTEP graduate student of creative writing who is graduating this spring. He left for spring break to go back to Ciudad Juárez and, when everything changed, he decided to stay there before eventually moving back to Tijuana. Hiriart is not stressed out about the online transition, but it’s not what he expected for his last semester at UTEP. 

Hiriart is also dealing with the fact that he may not have traditional graduation, which he was looking forward to. 

“I’m a bit bummed out I won’t get to have proper graduation, I didn’t walk for undergrad graduation and I thought grad school would be my chance to do so,” Hiriart said.  

Meanwhile, for other students where home is farther away than Mexico, the decision to go back home is different.  

María Isabel Pachón, a UTEP graduate student from Bogotá, Colombia, decided to stay in El Paso to finish her online classes. 

I prefer residential classes, but I think I am managing online classes okay,” Pachón said. “I don’t have any problems with Blackboard or any of the online tools.” 

After finishing the online semester, she is planning to travel back home, but at this moment, it is very uncertain if she would be able to leave the country or even come back afterward. 

“I have tickets to travel to Colombia in the summer,” Pachón said. “But I am nervous about not being able to come back here.”  

International students are advised to stay on top of the latest emails from UTEP and its OIP in order to stay informed about their status and changes to make sure they are compliant with the law.  

Maria Ramos may be reached at [email protected]  

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International students cope with COVID-19 and their immigration status