Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Daniela would cross the border every day from her home in Ciudad Juárez to attend the University of Texas at El Paso.
“It was a normal crossing. I only had to show my documents and I was never questioned about why I was going to UTEP,” said Daniela, who asked that her full name not be used because she feared retaliation from U.S. immigration officials.
But when the border closed on March 21, 2020, to non-essential travel to help limit the spread of COVID-19, Daniela found herself visiting the UTEP campus only if it was important for her to do so.
Six months after the border closure, Daniela needed to return to UTEP to pick up books and discuss her thesis with a professor, Guillermina G. Núñez-Mchiri. Daniela said CBP officers detained and questioned her.
“I told them (Customs and Border Protection Officers) that I was going to meet with my thesis chair, and they told me ‘you are lying, we can take your visa if we find out that you are lying to us,’” Daniela said.
For more than an hour and a half, three officers questioned Daniela on her travels and whereabouts.
“I was so scared and nervous because I didn’t know if they really could take my visa. They were very intimidating, asking me over and over the same questions, and they kept telling me that I was lying,” Daniela said.
Officers asked Daniela to call Núñez to prove that she was meeting her and picking up textbooks. After speaking to her professor, the officers confirmed that Daniela was telling the truth.
“I can’t imagine what could have happened if my professor didn’t pick up the phone. She has two offices in UTEP and luckily, she was in the one that we called. I was afraid of losing my visa or having an impact on my immigration record for life,” she said.
Daniela provided contemporaneous emails to El Paso Matters from Núñez and others that confirmed that CBP officers talked to her professor while she was being detained.
Another email provided by Daniela shows that UTEP President Heather Wilson instructed campus Police Chief Cliff Walsh to contact CBP about the incident. Wilson also vowed to protect the rights of UTEP’s international students.
CBP officials said there was some confusion about student movement in the spring, but they weren’t aware of incidents involving UTEP students after that.
Dania Bradford-Calvo, executive director of the Office of International Programs at UTEP, said UTEP students are encouraged to report to her office any issues they encounter when crossing.
Daniela said that she felt a wave of emotions, but was mainly shocked and scared by the interaction.
“They make you feel like you are doing something bad when the only thing you are trying to do is going to school,” Daniela said.
“Individuals traveling to attend educational institutions” are considered essential travelers, according to the CBP website.
For students like Daniela, crossing to receive textbooks and instruction from professors is legally allowed.
Chief Christopher Espinosa, CBP’s professionalism service manager in El Paso, said training for officers has been ongoing throughout the pandemic.
“There was a learning curve (in the early days of the pandemic) but it wasn’t soon after that, that officers were all on board on what was essential travel,” Espinosa said. “From May to now it hasn’t even been a factor.”
Daniela’s incident occurred in September 2020, months after the “learning curve” Espinosa referenced.
Espinosa said officers are trained on how to interact with students and are aware of what restrictions are currently and were previously in practice. He said if officers do come across any issues with travelers, they are told to immediately contact their supervisors.
“I don’t see a problem for students traveling from Mexico to the United States,” Espinosa said. “They would fall under essential travel.”
Daniela says she doesn’t remember a supervisor being called when three officers detained and questioned her about the validity of her educational travels.
“Three officers came to me to ask me the same questions but never (did) a supervisor show up. I didn’t think of asking to speak to a supervisor, all this was new to me,” Daniela said. “I was afraid and couldn’t think clearly.”
Doctoral student Ileana Leyva said that she encountered similar issues in April when she was trying to cross from Juárez to El Paso to retrieve a university laptop to complete her school work.
“The OIP (Office of International Programs) office had to request a special permission for me because officers wouldn’t let me cross, regardless of the letters that I had,” Leyva said. “OIP had to phone the director of CBP expressing the importance of me getting that computer for my academic success.”
As a doctoral student with limited internet access in Juárez, returning to campus to retrieve the computer was essential.
“It was very stressful because I was denied already a couple of times prior to that,” Leyva said. “They took 30 minutes and questioned me a lot. They clearly told me that it was an exception and that if I try to cross again I will be refused entrance.”
Leyva said she felt that the officer didn’t believe she was crossing to retrieve a computer, but instead was using her education as a cover to do something other than picking up the laptop.
“I felt observed … I don’t know if they will be measuring the time or I don’t know, maybe it’s something ridiculous to be thinking about, but that’s how I felt, definitely. So I just went for that computer and right away came back,” she said.
The other world
According to the Migration Policy Institute, about 1.1 million international students registered across the country for the 2019-2020 school year. At UTEP, almost 1,400 international students were enrolled in the fall of 2020, making up about 6% of the student body. That was down by 210, or 13%, from the prior year.
Branford-Calvo said that UTEP is “optimistic that the enrollment of international students will increase as a result of our various international recruitment strategies.”
Allison Vargas, a UTEP student from Germany, got married during this pandemic. Unfortunately, her parents weren’t able to attend.
“I’m their only daughter,” Vargas said. “I’m really close with my mom, so my mom doesn’t have that experience of being at my wedding.
Vargas was originally planning to get married in April, but had to postpone her wedding once the March travel restrictions went into place. Her parents had been scheduled to fly to the United States the week after those restrictions were placed.
“They had their tickets, my friends from Europe had their tickets and it was all planned,” Vargas said. “My mom was already tagging her luggage and was super excited. We had our venue and everything.”
Vargas said as COVID continued on, her hope to have her family at the wedding became smaller and smaller.
With a time crunch of getting married before her husband was deployed to Japan, Vargas and her husband got married in court in October.
“Honestly, the longer this goes on, the less I feel like we’re going to have that wedding because now everything’s going to change,” Vargas said.
Vargas left Germany to study at UTEP because she felt that German education was limited.
“In Germany, it’s like, ‘hey, you choose this path, these are the classes you take, and if you don’t like it, you have to start from the beginning,” Vargas said. “(Here) I can take all kinds of classes and be like ‘I never realized I really liked this topic, I really like this class.’ It gave me an opportunity to reconsider what I actually want to study.”
But she said the cost of education doesn’t come cheap as an international student. While she’s grateful that her parents are paying, she knows she doesn’t have the means to pay them back.
For other international students, the ongoing ticking clock of finding employment after graduation is a daunting reality.
After completing their degree, international students are granted a temporary work permit: optional practical training. This allows F-1 visa students to work in something directly related to their studies for up to 12 months. After this period, students have limited options: leave the country, enroll in a higher degree program or get a working visa sponsorship, H-1B.
New H-1B visas were temporarily suspended in July 2020 under the Trump administration.
A Muslim student’s experience
For mechanical engineering doctoral student Md. Mohieminul Islam Khan, also known as Ovilash, a year is not enough time to find employment.
“That struggle is always there to prove yourself in time, where time shouldn’t be a question of judgment or measurement at all,” Ovilash said.
Originally from Bangladesh, Ovilash came to the United States for the first time in 2017 to start his doctorate at UTEP.
“Mostly there was excitement, excitement of new things and happiness because I’m pursuing what I actually worked for my whole life,” he said.
But during this pandemic, Ovilash recalled how many students weren’t able to enter the country.
“During the time of COVID the embassy was closed in Bangladesh and a lot of newcomers couldn’t apply or missed their sessions,” he said.
Ovilash says he is grateful to have a strong Bangladeshi support system in El Paso. He said it has been crucial for his well being, especially during the Trump administration.
The Muslim ban was an executive order by Trump that banned travel to the U.S. from predominately Muslim countries. While Bangladesh wasn’t among the banned countries, neighboring countries were and the effects rippled into the country.
As a Muslim, Ovilash said the ban added an extra layer of difficulty as a student.
“It strikes some insecurity and stress,” he said. “News like that reflects badly on us.”
Ovilash said having others from Bangladesh in El Paso helped to get through the tough times.
“We don’t have a small family, we have a big family,” he said.