By Erik Galicia
Already reeling from financial insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Riverside City College student Anthony Jardillier wondered how he would navigate the uncertainty caused by a new federal order that threatens his legal status.
Jardillier, an international student from France, began studying business at RCC in 2018 and hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree and eventually open his own business. His experience during the pandemic, like it has been for many of the close to 500 international students in the Riverside Community College District, has been difficult.
“It’s been financially rough,” Jardillier said. “Extremely stressful.”
International students pay hundreds of dollars per unit to attend California Community Colleges. The economic shutdown caused by COVID-19 left many unsure of how they would find the money to pay for the fall 2020 term.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement then ordered international students enrolled only in online programs to depart from the U.S. or transfer to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status.
“If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings,” the order says.
But France is not accepting flights from the U.S. due to the risks posed by the pandemic.
Paloma Azpeitia, who came to RCC from Mexico in the fall of 2019, also explained that international students are facing an anxiety unique to them during the pandemic.
“Many of us are not living with our family,” Azpeitia said. “Now we’re afraid of our immigration status.”
Azpeitia is a communications major who came to the U.S. with hopes of becoming a fluent English speaker and wants to become a teacher one day. She said the lack of resources would cause her to struggle to continue to learn English if she were to return to Mexico as an online student.
“It wouldn’t be the same,” Azpeitia said.
Several lawsuits have been filed against President Donald Trump’s administration since the order was issued July 6, the first coming from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on July 8. The State of California also filed a lawsuit July 9.
Wolde-Ab Isaac, RCCD chancellor, condemned ICE’s order, calling it counterproductive to the education mission of the country, a disruption of students’ educational journeys, and an attempt to penalize institutions for attempting to protect students from COVID-19 by making the fall an online semester.
“The pandemic is the fault of neither the institution nor international students studying in the U.S.,” Isaac said in an email sent to students July 9. “Neither should be penalized. RCCD will work with the California Community Colleges state chancellor’s office and the national Presidents’ Alliance On Higher Education and Immigration to put pressure on Congress to block and challenge ICE on this unfair ruling.”
RCC President Gregory Anderson hosted a Zoom conference with over 60 international students July 10, where he said the college remains hopeful the lawsuits will stop the ruling.
“But we’re not waiting for that,” Anderson said.
The college’s current understanding of ICE’s order, Anderson said, is that the legal status of international students will remain protected as long as they are not 100% online students.
“We’ve already started submitting documentation which shows that we are not a 100% online college,” Anderson said.
The district already planned for the fall semester to be a mix of online and hybrid courses. Several courses already listed for the fall term require some face-to-face interaction, and more may be added in order to accommodate international students’ need to take hybrid courses at this time.
Anderson went on to clarify that any offering of face-to-face courses can only be made within the context of county and state guidelines on COVID-19 safety.
“Never will this college do something that’s contradictory to county and state guidelines,” Anderson said. “But our intentions are that we will be able to offer those courses in a hybrid mode.”
Although the fall schedule is already available, Anderson said the college will soon provide students a list of all classes that will require face-to-face interaction.
Because of the limited space available in hybrid courses, several international students have suggested they be allowed priority registration to ensure they are protected from the order as it is currently understood.
Kyla O’Connor, RCC dean of Enrollment Services, said registration priorities are determined by the district’s board policy, which is informed by California’s Title 5 and Educational Code.
The law reserves highest priority to students who are veterans, disabled, foster youth, or receiving services from programs such as the Extended Opportunity Program.
As of now, the administration is providing support for the lawsuits against the federal government but has not joined in any of them.
Ivan Hess, RCCD student trustee, called for that to change.
“The craven attempts of politicians in Washington to pressure our schools and colleges into reopening, while the COVID-19 crisis worsens, should be met with bold and unified opposition,” Hess told Viewpoints via email. “I strongly wish for our Board to seek the opinion of the (California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office’s) General Counsel on this matter, and for the district to join other California plaintiffs in the federal suit.”
Hess also called for students, staff and faculty to demand action from institutions in seeking more humane immigration and visa systems.
“The health and safety of our students and communities are not chips to be bet in a game of political poker,” Hess said. “Lives and livelihoods are endangered by this policy. It is not time for fear or for facile posturing. It is time for solidarity and action, by all and for all.”
Although hopeful that everything will work itself out, Jardillier said he initially envisioned himself being put in a detention center when he heard the news of ICE’s order.
“I think it’s all bull,” Jardillier said. “A political scheme for votes. It’s messed up.”