For international students, protesting on campuses has higher stakes

FILE PHOTO: People stand around a statue of George Washington tied with a Palestinian flag and a keffiyeh inside a pro-Palestinian encampment at George Washington University in Washington, DC, U.S., May 2, 2024. REUTERS/Craig Hudson/File Photo

Momodou Taal did not think he would be facing suspension and potentially having his visa revoked for protesting war at a school that just spent its academic year celebrating freedom of expression.

A doctoral student from the United Kingdom, Taal was temporarily suspended from Cornell University last week for taking part in a protest encampment and staying past the 8 p.m. curfew, according to a letter he shared with The Washington Post. He said he was at the pro-Palestinian demonstration as part of a team negotiating with administrators.

“I was in a complete sense of shock when I received the suspension letter,” Taal told The Post, adding he was “disappointed.” He does not know whether the suspension will be lifted, if at all.

Since late October, college and university students across the country have been setting up encampments to protest Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and demanding that their schools cut financial ties to Israel. The efforts garnered national attention in mid-April when police arrested more than 100 protesters at Columbia University, leading students at other schools to prop up encampments. Since then, more than 2,000 protesters have been arrested, according to a Post tally of news reports and police and university statements, and many others have been suspended or called to disciplinary hearings by universities.

American students are left to deal with a barrage of issues including arrests and suspensions, but international students have an added burden – the threat of losing their visas and potentially being forced to leave the country. Some international students say they are on the path to suspension for protesting, while others told The Post they are expecting to receive letters that could lead to suspension.

“The repercussions are different for international students because their visas and visa status is tried to them being an active student at a university,” said Bhavya Chaudhary, an immigration attorney who handles international student visas. “If they are suspended, that could mean a termination of their Student and Exchange Visitor Information System record, which is the basis of their visa to the U.S.”

Chaudhary said it’s possible that a short or temporary suspension may not impact a student’s visa, but the moment an international student fails to maintain a full course of credit or if they are convicted of a crime, their visa is in jeopardy.

Schools have 21 days to inform the Department of Homeland Security of a suspension – or disciplinary action taken because of a criminal conviction – and once a student’s SEVIS record is terminated, their presence in the United States becomes unlawful, and they have 15 days to leave the country.

A DHS. official told The Post that so far, no students have had visas terminated because of participation in campus protests.

Taal, a black student in the Africana studies department who was suspended along with three other students, said he finds the suspensions shocking, given that the university celebrates the 1969 student occupation that led to the creation of the Afro-American Studies Center at Cornell.

“The university has a history of struggle and activism, and Palestine is part of that,” he said. “I felt disgusted that the university would steep to such punitive measures for people protesting a genocide.”

Israel denies that it is carrying out genocide in Gaza. A case brought before the International Court of Justice by South Africa alleges that Israel is violating international law by committing and not preventing genocidal acts.

Bianca Waked, a Canadian national and a doctoral student at Cornell who has also been temporarily suspended, said she wasn’t part of the encampment because she was aware of the added risk as an international student who is of Lebanese descent, but joined the negotiating team.

Like Taal, Waked said she was only in the encampment area the night before receiving the suspension letter to negotiate with the administration. Waked particularly took issue with a letter from administration saying she’d been “unreasonably loud.”

“I am a deaf woman who cannot regulate for volume,” she said during a video interview. “I take personal offense at that accusation.”

Asked about Waked’s and Taal’s suspensions, Cornell directed The Post to the university president’s statement from April 29 that said the students had been “dishonest in their request, stating that there would not be tents and that the art installation would be removed by 8 p.m. on Thursday.” The statement said the encampment was proving disruptive to the campus and impacting public safety.

The Post could not verify how many international students participated in the ongoing campus protests. Students at various universities, however, told The Post international students had been playing significant roles as speakers, teachers and general supporters, while avoiding encampments and other areas where the risk of arrest or suspension was high.

Even then, Waked at Cornell said: “People don’t fully realize how much international students are risking right now.”

Waked said the suspension has created confusion about her legal status in the country. She said administrators have ignored her questions on whether she should be packing her bags or keep grading papers for the class she taught this semester.

If it comes down to being suspended and losing her visa, Waked said she is prepared.

“This administration is trying to shut down peaceful protests by using us and our suspensions as bargaining chips to shut down the camp and no one will give in to that tactic,” she said. “This encampment is bigger than a suspension because it’s about protecting Palestinian lives.”

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Facing added consequences

Johnny Hazboun, a Palestinian Jordanian student at Purdue University, had already bought a ticket to go home to Jordan for his summer vacation when he received a letter April 30 about a code of conduct violation that is a pathway to suspension, he said.

In a letter seen by The Post, the administration accused Hazboun of occupying a university building and putting up a structure on school property and not taking it down after a warning. He said three other students of color also got the letter.

Hazboun and Ishan Tripathi, another international student facing similar accusations deny all charges. They said they complied with university guidelines every step of the way and even agreed to disassemble the encampment structure they had put up.

At the last moment, however, it started raining and students felt it was unsafe to dismantle while the ground was wet. They emailed administrators about the delay, and the officials appeared to understand, according to screenshots of emails seen by The Post.

Still, the next day, they received letters. Purdue did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Hazboun is concerned about disappointing his parents if his hearing leads to a suspension, but said “some risks are worth taking.”

“Palestine is bigger than me, you, all of us,” he said. “I keep thinking whatever happens to me is nothing compared to what the people of Gaza have been through and are still going through.”

Organizers at campus protests across the country have been helping students evaluate their options. A spokesperson for Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine, a student group at Harvard University helping organize the encampment there, said that they “have a responsibility to advise that international students are especially cautious when assessing risk.”

Some students elsewhere haven’t received letters yet, but are expecting the worst.

Sonya Epifantseva, an undergraduate ecology student, was eager to come to Stanford University because she faced a lot of backlash for her environmental activism back home in Russia.

“When I first came I was idealizing and romanticizing the U.S. a lot,” she said. “I felt proud to be a student here.”

Seeing the way U.S. universities have treated student protesters recently, Epifantseva no longer feels that way, she said.

Epifantseva was part of the Stanford’s first encampment in October. For the second encampment, which began last month, the university barred overnight camping and disrupting classes or events. Epifantseva, afraid of being suspended and losing her visa, has been careful to follow the rules to avoid disciplinary proceedings, which are a pathway to suspensions.

“But it may not matter,” she said. “Lots of students who are not camping now but did camp last year are receiving the letters.”

As protests gather strength nationally, some international students are changing how they calculate risk.

Iman Iftikhar, a Pakistani student about to attend her graduation at Yale University, has been supporting the encampment from the sidelines because of her student visa status. Now she is feeling a sense of guilt about this decision, even as 53 have been arrested on campus.

“Palestine is so much bigger than university disciplinary action or one student facing the consequences of trying to advocate for civil justice on a university campus,” the history and philosophy major said. “In the worst case, I wouldn’t get my diploma or I would get deported, but I am leaving soon in any case.”



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