The Trump administration is moving to block international students from entering the country if their colleges are transitioning to online-only classes amid the pandemic, and ICE says it may remove foreign students who are already here if their schools have made the online-only switch. MIT, Northeastern and Harvard are taking the administration to court over this — they say the decision is a power play to force colleges to abandon their remote learning plans. But students are caught in the middle. Aayush Khadka, a Harvard Ph.D. student from Nepal, spoke with WGBH News All Things Considered Host Arun Rath about the decision and its potential ramifications. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: So before we talk about what's going on, could you tell us what you're studying and how far along you are?
Aayush Khadka: Yes, of course. I am a fourth year Ph.D. candidate in the population health sciences Ph.D. program, which is a joint program between the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. I'm currently in the dissertation phase of my Ph.D.
Arun Rath: The Trump administration came into office with a clearly hostile attitude towards immigration as it was. And since then, you know, we've seen any number of decisions that have reflected that in various ways. But with this decision just now, did you see this coming? Were you expecting this?
Aayush Khadka: I was not, although I was a little bit fearful. Just before this decision came there were a couple of decisions regarding immigration as well. We were a little bit worried that something would come further along the line that might affect international students. And lo and behold, just a few days ago it came.
Arun Rath: You're a Ph.D. student, and so you're doing research, not necessarily coursework. Have you figured out how this move by the administration will affect you?
Aayush Khadka: It's a great question. And I and my colleagues who are doing research right now and are international students have not yet figured out how it might affect us. We have heard that those who are doing research might not, in fact, be affected by this because we are not formally doing coursework. But at the same time, a lot is up in the air and the entire situation is very confusing still for us.
Arun Rath: Yeah, I have to imagine. And what about, as a Ph.D. student, do you teach? Do you have contact with undergrads much?
Aayush Khadka: I did teach up until last semester. I was teaching for four straight semesters. When I do teach I normally teach graduate-level courses, but I do have friends who have taught undergrad level courses as well.
Arun Rath: What about the fact that you do teach or have taught. Does that give you any kind of protection, because that is work that is happening here?
Aayush Khadka: Right. I really don't know about that as well. That is something we've been trying to find out, too. It seems that the order just encompasses coursework, and that seems to be, sort of, the determining factor in terms of whether or not you fall under the purview of the order. But I don't know if teaching or doing research assistantship-type positions while doing your Ph.D. will help you out.
Arun Rath: And I know for, you know, students from abroad who are studying in America or anywhere else, for that matter, you tend to make connections with other students both from your country and other countries. What have you been hearing among your colleagues? I imagine some, at least, have to be in the same boat as you?
Aayush Khadka: Yeah, absolutely. Ever since this order came to be, I have been in touch with a number of international student colleagues from other campuses as well, outside of Harvard. And, of course, the International Scholars Working Group within the Harvard Graduate Student Union has been very active in terms of responding to the ICE order as well. We share information a lot. We have heard that some universities might be trying to find ways around the order, maybe by instituting a one-credit course, which allows international students to stay in the U.S. if they're already in the U.S.
Arun Rath: I hate to ask it this question, but I have to, if it were a situation where you were called on to be deported, to be returned, given the situation right now — I know the European Union doesn't accept flights from the U.S. because of the coronavirus — I think Nepal is in the same situation. Would you be able to go back?
Aayush Khadka: No, I don't think so. Nepal has closed off its borders to all international flights. In fact, there are no domestic flights in Nepal as well. And this is in response to the coronavirus pandemic. So there would be no way for me to fly into Nepal right now. The other option to get into Nepal is, of course, by road, which would mean flying into India. But Nepal has literally sealed off its borders, which means there is no going into Nepal through any means, air or land. And of course, Nepal is a landlocked country, so there is no sea route into Nepal either.
Arun Rath: So, another unpleasant question, but how much are you on edge right now? How worried are you about your situation here?
Aayush Khadka: I am trying to take it day by day. It is a little bit stressful, but I have been quite deeply involved with the International Scholars Working Group with the Harvard Graduate Student Union in responding to the ICE order. And I have also been in touch with international students at other campuses who are also organizing to respond to this order, whether directly or by getting in touch with their university administrations. And this sense of collective that I feel because of working with International Scholars Working Group and with the other international students has been a source of great comfort for me in these uncertain times.
Arun Rath: As you mentioned, of course, the institution where you are studying, Harvard, along with other universities, are fighting this in court. You're aware of that, but what have you heard from the school in terms of what's going on right now?
Aayush Khadka: We haven't heard much from the school beyond the fact that Harvard and MIT have jointly filed a suit against DHS and ICE. We don't know much about how the proceedings are going in court, but I'm sure Harvard will update us on that soon. I think it is actually a step in the right direction. It makes a lot of sense, from my perspective at least, to just continue with the temporary exemption that ICE and SEVP had instituted for the spring semester. And I'm heartened that Harvard and MIT responded so quickly to the ICE order. I mean it was within a couple of days that the suit was filed. I am hopeful about that, but I hope that there is some contingency planning being done as well right now by the university.
Arun Rath: WGBH Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed told us yesterday that he does expect there to be something regarding the ruling soon. But we'll be continuing watching this and we'll check back in with you again.