New US immigration rules have sent students from Venezuela into a panic about returning to a homeland in crisis.
Christian Garcia, who won a grant to finish high school in Germany and now studies international political economy at the College of Idaho, says he is considering seeking political asylum or an internship in order to stay in the US if he can’t keep his student visa.
“Going back is not an option for me,” said Garcia. When he left his hometown of San Cristobal in western Venezuela in 2016, his hope was to help his parents regain their footing after the economy collapsed. A lawyer and a military colonel less than a decade ago, they now sell eggs and cheese on the road next to his house to support themselves and a younger sibling. “The country that I knew is no longer there,” Garcia said.
Visa rules disclosed this week by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement could force international students whose schools won’t return for in-person classes this fall to leave the country or transfer. Many universities have said they will hold only online classes, to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Many students from around the world are now unsure whether they will be forced to leave the country, and Venezuelans in particular fear for their safety, health and continued access to education.
The US has issued nearly 14,000 F1 student visas to Venezuelans in the past five years, even after the US Embassy closed its doors in the nation in early 2019 after President Nicolas Maduro kicked out the American delegation for recognising opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate president.
Five million Venezuelans have fled since 2015, having faced hunger, soaring prices and malnutrition. The nation now is also besieged by Covid-19, which it is ill-equipped to contain. Students at US schools who are forced back to Venezuela could be vulnerable to oppression, living under a regime the US has publicly denounced.
“I saw repression and human rights violations first hand,” said Adriana Cisneros, 23, who moved to Texas with her parents after months of anti-government protests in 2017 left more than 120 people dead across the country. She recently completed an associate’s degree at Kilgore College and wants to earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
Cisneros called the new visa rule “radical and cruel,” saying: “I don’t even have family or friends in Venezuela anymore. There’s nothing for me there.”
Students who can’t stay in the US would struggle to continue their educations online from Venezuela. The nation has one of the world’s slowest internet connections. In some parts of Venezuela, speeds are superior only to those in Afghanistan and Algeria. This would limit students’ ability to participate in virtual classes or download large files like video lectures. Utilities like water and electricity are also unreliable.
“If these students come back, taking online classes will look like an obstacle race,” said telecommunications expert and Metropolitan University professor Jose Maria de Viana.