Open letter to UIC administration on behalf of GEO International Caucus

April 3, 2020

Dear Chancellor Amiridis, President Killeen, Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Poser, Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs Barish, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Tolliver, Vice Chancellor for Administrative Affairs Coronado, Associate Vice Provost for Global Engagement and OIS Executive Director Hammerschmidt, OIS Director of International Student and Outreach Services Ward, OIS Director of International Employment Sweet-Herlien, and Director of OIS Operations Simagrai:

Over the past month, UIC has been forced to drastically reorganize its operations in the face of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States. While UIC continues to adjust to the impact COVID-19 is having on our lives, GEO International Caucus wants to stress that any and all measures taken by UIC in response to the present crisis must aim, first and foremost, to minimize the impact it will have on the vulnerable members of our community.

While not downplaying the severity of the impact that the pandemic has had on the entire UIC community, we would like to bring your attention to the international graduate workers as one of the vulnerable groups who have been hit especially hard in the last month. Like all other academic community members, our research plans were put on hold due to pandemic outbreak. This had adversely affected the timelines for completion of our dissertations, publications, and further promotion of our careers. For those of us on the job market, opportunities for tenure-track jobs, and postdocs, in an already precarious academic job market have disappeared with little indication of whether those opportunities will be restored. Beyond the immediate and necessarily ad-hoc adjustments imposed on everyone by social distancing measures and the switch to remote learning for the spring semester, the GEO is also gearing up to adjust to the long-term impact that the current crisis will have on our international graduate workers for months and years to come. 

The following list of demands was drawn up in response to the immediate and long-term needs and concerns of international graduate students/workers as conveyed to us by our colleagues across the university.  

1.  Guaranteed Summer Financial Support Package (housing, food allowance, health care) for ALL International Graduate Employees in our Bargaining Unit

With federal social distancing guidelines officially extended until April 30, 2020, and with Spring Semester concluding on May 8, 2020 it is clear now that International Students’ Summer Semester travel, funding, and employment will be completely disrupted. Many of the external summer internships have been officially canceled, external funding opportunities put on hold, and travel to research destinations banned. Thus, most (if not all), international graduate students will be forced to stay in the U.S. for the summer (which, in most cases, is not what we have been planning for), with no means to pay for housing, food, and medical care. Financial support under the U.S. Federal CARES act, as well as the health insurance options available under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), will not be extended to non-resident aliens (most international students). 

Therefore, we are asking UIC to commit to providing the following basic financial support for ALL International Graduate Employees in our Bargaining Unit for a 3-month period after our Spring 2020 contract ends and until the beginning of our Fall 2020 contract (May 15, 2020 – August 15, 2020):

·   Free on-campus housing,

·   Monthly stipend for essential groceries in the amount of $400 (tax-exempt or after taxes), and

·   Free Campus Care enrollment for Summer 2020 and access to care (discussed in detail below).

International students are mandated by USCIS to be enrolled in the basic health insurance plan during the time that school is in session However, in the face of the current pandemic, international students forced to remain in the U.S. during summer are left in a precarious position without any healthcare coverage, unable to get the prescriptions filled, without access to urgent medical treatment and/or vision care. Many will not be able to afford Campus Care, let alone other more expensive plans.

We urge the administration to come up with a solution that ensures that international students are not left without healthcare over the summer. 

This can be done, for example, by waiving the Campus Care insurance fee ($445) for Summer 2020 for every continuing international graduate worker who wishes to be enrolled in Campus Care for the Summer semester.

In addition to that, we urge Campus Care to expand access to prescriptions through third-party pharmacies to allow students to get their prescriptions filled by pharmacies closer to where they live. This would prevent students from traveling long distances to get their prescriptions filled exclusively at the UI Health Pharmacy at Maxwell St. and consequently prevent their exposure to COVID-19.

2.                  Assisting international students in maintaining their visa status, lawful presence, employment, and access to continuous health insurance coverage in the U.S.:

Note: a brief version of the following request was sent to the OIS administration by the GEO International Caucus on March 27, 2020. To date, no response has been received.  

Given that the USCIS offices are closed until May 4th or further, thus disrupting and delaying the issuance of work permits (including those under CPT and OPT), as well as immigration regulations being modified daily, we ask OIS to commit to substantially improving and expanding their services in the following ways:

  • To provide regular weekly updates and guidance by email to all International students by covering all of the immigration updates issued by USCIS, ICE, etc.;
  • Creating real-time online chat/call support for International students to address their urgent individual requests (currently, the only option to reach OIS is either by emailing to general ois@uic.edu mailbox, or leaving a message by calling general OIS line). None of the two currently available service options guarantees a timely response;
  • Creating an additional FAQ for international graduate students with employment issues in mind, in order to keep International students up-to-date with OIS decisions on addressing work permit (CPT and OPT) issuance, application processing delays, etc.;
  • Establishing and enforcing a reasonable turnaround time for completion of the paperwork required to be processed by OIS (such as OPT/CPT forms, extension/renewal of I-20 forms, travel signatures on I-20 forms, etc.). In the past, the general time frame to hear back from OIS was listed as 5 business days. However, these rules have never been strictly followed or enforced. In the current situation, where faster response/action is required due to the time-sensitive nature of individual situations, it is important to have a clear policy in place and to follow it. 

 3.                  Committing to provide an additional year of funding on a case-by-case basis to the international graduate students 

International students’ visa renewals for their degree programs, as well as their lawful presence in the U.S., run until the “program end date” specified in their I-20 Certificates (governed by DHS and ICE through the online SEVIS platform). Generally, if a student is not able to finish the program by the originally specified “end date,” an extension of the program must be requested from the school.  The extension can be granted only if the sponsoring institution (UIC) commits to additional funding needed for student’s work towards a terminal degree.  Inability to receive this extension means that the student must leave the U.S. without graduating. 

Taking the above into account, it becomes clear that following the pandemic, many graduate students will need an additional year of funding due to the disruption of their research (travel, lab trials, professional meetings, and conferences) for completion of their programs. While such extensions have been granted in the past, it is safe to assume that going forward, this number will be substantially higher than usual. To ensure every international graduate student is able to graduate, we are asking UIC to express a willingness to commit to a case-by-case issuance of an additional year of financial support (tuition waiver + stipend). The criteria for requesting an additional year of funding could include: (1) demonstrated loss of current funding or inability to complete research (for example because of travel restrictions either domestically or internationally or inability to conduct scheduled experiments) due to the pandemic; (2) good academic progress in the graduate program, along with expressed support of an advisor. This financial support extension could be carried out in the form of a Fellowship or a Scholarship from the University or the Graduate College that a student is enrolled in.

We hope the university will address these concerns as quickly as possible, considering the urgency of the situation.

Sincerely,

Graduate Employee Organization International Caucus

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