According to new regulations released on Monday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), foreign students attending U.S. colleges that will operate entirely online this fall semester, cannot remain in the country to do so.
In the light of the coronavirus pandemic, college students across the United States and around the world contemplate what their upcoming semester might look like. But the federal guidance limits options for international students and leaves them with an uncomfortable choice: attend in-person classes during a pandemic or take them online from another country.
And for students enrolled in schools that have already announced plans to operate fully online, there is no choice. Under the new rules, the State Department will not issue them visas, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection will not allow them to enter the country.
“Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status,” according to a release from ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program. “If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”
The agency said students already in the country and faced with a fully online course of study may take alternative measures to maintain their nonimmigrant status, “such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave.”
The rule applies to holders of F-1 and M-1 nonimmigrant visas, which allow nonimmigrant students to pursue academic and vocational coursework, respectively.
More than 1 million of the country’s higher education students come from overseas, according to the nonprofit Institute of International Education.
Typically, foreign students are limited in how many online courses they can take and are required to do the majority of their learning in the classroom, according to immigration lawyer Fiona McEntee. Once the pandemic struck, students were given flexibility to take more online classes — but only for the spring and summer semesters.
“It’s an unprecedented public health crisis, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the allowances that they made to continue, especially given the fact that we clearly, quite clearly do not have a handle on the pandemic here right now, unlike other countries that have,” McEntee said. “This makes no sense.”
McEntee said the decision is especially puzzling given the value of foreign students, which is quantifiable economically.
McEntee added that losing foreign students is a huge blow to university budgets, something that will impact domestic students as well. Similarly, the decision to attend classes in person impacts all students present.
“If students can study online successfully from an academic point of view, why are we forcing them to come into a situation where they could put their health at risk and also the health of their classmates at risk?” she asked.