On Monday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced in a statement that international students studying in the United States who are enrolled in universities offering online only courses in the upcoming fall semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic will have to leave the country or risk deportation.
These rules apply to F-1 nonimmigrant students who pursue academic coursework and M-1 nonimmigrant students who pursue vocational coursework in the US.
ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) said in the statement, “The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States.”
Students affected must transfer to an institution that plans to continue with in-person learning during the pandemic if they want to remain in the US.
Under the visa requirements to study in the US in-person, international students aren’t allowed to take online only courses. As US universities initially tried to cope with changes brought by the pandemic, international students were allowed to temporarily take online only courses in the spring and summer semesters and remain in the US, according to ICE.
That policy will no longer be applicable for the fall semester.
Immigration lawyer Fiona McEntee told NPR that the decision makes “no sense.”
“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?”
“It’s an unprecedented public health crisis,” McEntee added, “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.”
As the pandemic continues to batter the nation with renewed intensity, many major US institutions such as Harvard, Columbia and New York University have already announced that their fall semesters will be conducted online.
Harvard president Larry Bacow criticized ICE’s decision in a statement as a “blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem.”
“This guidance undermines the thoughtful approach taken on behalf of students by so many institutions, including Harvard, to plan for continuing academic programs while balancing the health and safety challenges of the global pandemic,” Bacow added.
“We will work closely with other colleges and universities around the country to chart a path forward.”
Some universities are offering a hybrid model of learning that incorporates both online and in-person classes.
According to SEVP, students enrolled in such universities can stay in the US, provided their universities can certify that international students are only taking a minimum number of online classes in the upcoming semester.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a university focused newspaper and website that tracks the reopening plans of 1,090 colleges, 60% of universities plan for in-person learning in the fall 2020 semester. 24% have proposed a hybrid model and 9% have switched to online-only classes. 5% and 2.2% are considering a range of options and are waiting to decide what steps to take.
Monday’s announcement requires universities that are offering online only courses for the fall semester to notify SEVP by July 15. The deadline for universities offering a hybrid model is August 1.
However, in consideration of the fact that many universities may later switch to online only courses to safeguard the health of their students during an evolving crisis, the SEVP stated that it must be notified by the universities of any such change within 10 days.
Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center told CNN that students who can no longer stay in the US may have trouble going back to their countries due to travel restrictions.
“The bigger issue is some of these countries have travel restrictions on and they can’t go home, so what do they do then? It’s a conundrum for a lot of students.”
Ted Mitchell, the President of the American Council on Education (ACE), a higher education lobbying group, said in a statement that ICE’s new decision is “horrifying” adding that it “provides confusion and complexity rather than certainty and clarity.”
“At a time when institutions are doing everything they can to help reopen our country, we need flexibility, not a big step in the wrong direction. ICE should allow any international student with a valid visa to continue their education regardless of whether a student is receiving his or her education online, in person, or through a combination of both, whether in the United States or in their home country, during this unprecedented global health crisis.”
Mitchell also underscored the contribution of international students to the US economy.
“Some one million international students attend U.S. colleges and universities annually, contributing greatly to this country’s intellectual and cultural vibrancy. They also yield an estimated economic impact of $41 billion and support more than 450,000 U.S. jobs.”
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