Raj Anupam is a student working on his master's degree at the University of Maine. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Raj Anupam found out Monday that a new federal rule might make his future as an international student in the U.S. much more uncertain.

The University of Maine graduate student, who has been on track to become a physics teacher, learned that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, would require that international students leave the country if their college or university didn’t plan to reopen for in-person instruction this fall.

“It felt basically like the [Trump] administration was trying to bully colleges to remain open,” he said. “Because we cannot legally fight for ourselves here, we feel like we are being traded for some political agenda.”

Anupam has been living off campus in Orono and taking classes remotely since UMaine shut down campus and switched to online-only instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic in March.

Since then, ICE had been allowing international students to stay in the country and take remote classes. But Monday’s rule ends that arrangement, affecting thousands of foreign students currently in the U.S. as well as those in foreign countries planning to return to the U.S. this fall to continue their education.

This file photo shows the University of Maine campus in March 2020 before the school transitioned to remote instruction. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Under the regulation, the U.S. will not issue visas to students enrolled in universities that plan to offer classes entirely online this fall. Students at these universities would not be allowed to enter the country. If they’re already living here, they would be asked to leave or transfer to a school with in-person instruction to maintain their legal status.

University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy said that the new ICE rule will not affect international students at Maine’s public universities since campuses plan to open for in-person classes. He said earlier this week that those students should not “lose any sleep over this.” And with few exceptions, colleges and universities in Maine — both public and private — currently have plans to reopen their campuses, limiting the potential impact of the ICE rules in the state.

But if campuses close and shift fully to online learning due to a spike in the number of coronavirus infections, which many states are experiencing now, international students could be caught in a bind.

Harvard University and MIT, as well as the state of California, have sued the Trump administration over the rule. Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District have called on the administration to reverse the rule.

But international students are still in limbo.

At UMaine, international students are hoping they get to stay in Maine at least until Thanksgiving, after which the state’s public universities will transition to an online-only semester.

They already know that they won’t have the same choice domestic students have to participate in classes remotely if they’re not comfortable going to campus. As they see it, they have to attend in-person classes and risk contracting the coronavirus to be able to maintain their legal status.

“I need to focus on staying in the country first, and then think about my health, because I don’t know my chances of getting COVID-19, but there’s a 100 percent chance that if I don’t rejoin the campus, I will be sent out of the country,” Anupam said.

International students have gotten used to living a restricted life subject to sudden changes throughout the Trump administration. Some, like Ilija Stojiljkovic, have come to terms with the fact that they need to build up a universal resume that will allow them to get jobs outside the U.S.

Stojiljkovic has been an international student for six years. He finished his undergraduate degree last year, and has another year left before he earns his Masters of Business Administration degree from UMaine.

“Personally, I would love to stay in the United States, especially Maine. I feel like I became a part of it. All my connections and a lot of people that I really care about are here,” Stojiljkovic said. “The fact that we’re being put in a situation where we might possibly lose it all — everything we’ve worked hard for — it seems irrational and a little too harsh.”

Students across the country perceive this latest rule from the Trump administration asking them to leave during a pandemic if their universities don’t offer in-person instruction as just another effort to push international students out.

“I don’t see a benefit to removing international students from the United States, especially if you consider the fact that we bring a large amount of revenue to universities in the United States,” Stojiljkovic said.

If students do have to leave due to the new immigration ruling, the logistics of international travel during the pandemic pose additional barriers. Airlines are not currently offering regular flights to most international locations from the U.S. The European Union has temporarily banned travelers from the U.S., and many Asian countries, including India, have imposed similar restrictions.

Once international students leave, they are not sure when or if they will be able to return to the U.S., even if they haven’t finished their degrees.

“I’m not sure if I’ll be able to safely go home,” Anupam said. “My own country might not welcome me right now, and if I go I might not be able to come back.”