When he was young, Alejandro Martinez Morilla thought he could be a professional tennis player.
But when he realized becoming a pro athlete wasn’t in his future, the Madrid native’s passion for the game instead became a ticket to an education in the United States. It brought him to Metro State University, where he is pursuing a double major in marketing and management. The senior hopes to find work in the U.S. after he graduates.
But an announcement from federal immigration officials this week left him shaken. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that oversees F1 student visas, said it had changed some rules as a result of the pandemic. Any international student with a full course load of virtual classes is no longer eligible to remain in the U.S. Those who decide to remain in the country could be deported.
Morilla has already picked his classes for the fall — and they’re all scheduled to take place online.
He first heard about the change in an online group full of student athletes from Spain.
“We all just got really shocked and panicked,” he said.
Immigrants have faced increasing uncertainty in the U.S. in recent years. President Trump’s administration has rolled back legal immigration pathways and decreased the number of refugees allowed in the country. Undocumented residents have been threatened with “raids” while the Obama-era DACA program was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court and likely will be again.
Still, students like Morilla have generally felt secure. He said the news this week made him realize what’s at stake.
“With a lot of students, their only resource is to study here in the States. If you’re taking that away from them, you’re taking a lot of dreams away and a lot of possibilities,” he said.
Morilla said he’s confident he’ll be able to finish his degrees. MSU has been supportive since the news broke, he said, giving him and others like him a few weeks weeks to swap or add an in-person class. He’s sure things will be worked out in time.
“It’s going to be a busy week,” Morilla said.
About 2,000 international students are expected to study in Denver this year.
Spokespeople for the University of Denver and the University of Colorado Denver said both institutions have enrolled about 800 international students for the upcoming semester. MSU has about 160, and a spokesperson for the university said “most” are expected to be affected by the new rule.
But David Fine, MSU’s general counsel, said most students should be able to revisit their schedules to ensure they have at least one in-person course.
“It certainly would be possible for a student to adjust their schedule,” he said, “and there’s no problem with that.”
Fine said he and his colleagues spent most of Tuesday poring over ICE’s new rule. He said the university unquestionably supports its international students. Though that population is much smaller at Metro than at other local schools, he said their presence enhances the learning experience for everyone.
“You learn from people who are from different places. You learn from people from different backgrounds. There’s no question that enhances the experience for everyone, including those who come from Colorado originally,” he said.
“The University of Denver’s doors are open to all international students,” said DU’s press release, adding that the university has sent detailed guidance to students who may have to grapple with ICE’s new rules.
Lawrence Hunter, director of CU Anschutz’s computational bioscience program, has made his commitment to international students known on Twitter. He’s been quote-tweeting Andy Slavitt, President Obama’s Medicare administrator, who has called for professors to create in-person class opportunities to subvert the new rule. Slavitt described ICE’s move as “part of Trump’s hateful brain drain.”
Hunter told Denverite he’ll support anyone who wants to pursue an independent-study class that fits within his expertise. PhD students at Anchutz, he added, are all exempt from the rule because their thesis work requires them to work with advisors. Most medical students won’t have to worry, either, because their lab work requires in-person participation.
Some students feel like they’ll be able to figure out their schedules and remain in the U.S., but the new rule has still made them feel uneasy.
Eric Telerman is working on his MBA at Metro. He’s Argentinian, but he arrived in Denver about a year ago from Israel, where he was working in finance for GE. He said he chose MSU because it was affordable and professed a commitment to diversity. It also offers him a chance to become even more competitive in his work, wherever he ends up after graduating.
“Since I worked for a global company, and especially an American company, I always heard how much an MBA from the United States is going to take me to the next step in my career,” he said.
Telerman said he’s been enamored by the U.S. since he first came here on a tourist visa. That trip filled him with ideas of his own American Dream, but he realized recently he wasn’t exposed to the full American experience.
“I thought that this was an amazing place, and it was a place where people from different backgrounds and different countries can strive,” he said. “Then you move here and you find all these difficulties that are not right.”
Like Morilla, Telerman said he expects Metro will help him ensure that his schedule meets requirements to remain in the country. Still, ICE’s announcement this week hasn’t sat well with him.
“I think its wrong,” he said. “Because we are rightfully here. We’re not stealing something from somebody else. We are not doing something that is illegal. We are doing everything that is right, so if we play by the rules we expect that the rules wont change every time.”
Morilla, too, sees his education in the U.S. as a game-changer, even if he eventually has to return to Spain. He still hopes he’ll be able to stay and work in the country when he’s done with school. But he’s aware visa programs have become more difficult to access. These changes have shifted the way he thinks about his future.
“I still want to pursue my future here, but it’s definitely making me think that, because they’re trying to make it more difficult, I have to start thinking about going back home,” he said. “It’s not my say, whether to say that’s correct or not, but it’s definitely a little bit heartbreaking because you see your dreams fade away with these kind of actions.”