International students who are pursuing degrees in the United States will have to leave the country or risk deportation if their universities switch to online-only courses, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced this week. The Trump administration has also made a litany of changes to the US immigration system, citing the coronavirus pandemic, that have resulted in barring swaths of immigrants from coming to the country
The move may affect thousands of foreign students who come to the United States to attend universities or participate in training programs, as well as non-academic or vocational studies.
Universities nationwide are beginning to make the decision to transition to online courses as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. At Harvard, for example, all course instruction will be delivered online, including for students living on campus. For international students, that opens the door to them having to leave the US.
Many U.S. colleges were scrambling to modify plans for the fall semester in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic a day after the Trump administration issued an order that could force tens of thousands of foreign students to leave the country if their schools hold all classes online.
“There’s so much uncertainty. It’s very frustrating,” said Valeria Mendiola, 26, a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “If I have to go back to Mexico, I am able to go back, but many international students just can’t.”
In a news release Monday, ICE said that students who fall under certain visas “may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States,” adding, “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.”
The agency suggested that students currently enrolled in the US consider other measures, like transferring to schools with in-person instruction. There’s an exception for universities using a hybrid model, such as a mix of online and in-person classes.
Brad Farnsworth, vice president of the American Council on Education, said the announcement caught him and many others by surprise.
“We think this is going to create more confusion and more uncertainty,” said Farnsworth, whose organization represents about 1,800 colleges and universities. “What we were hoping to see was more appreciation for all the different possible nuances that campuses will be exploring.”
One concern with the new guidance, Farnsworth said, is what would happen if the public health situation deteriorates in the fall and universities that had been offering in-person classes feel they have to shift all courses online to stay safe.
Visa requirements for students have always been strict and coming to the US to take online-only courses has been prohibited. The guidance, Bacow continued, “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. We will work closely with other colleges and universities around the country to chart a path forward,” he said.
There are more than a million foreign students at U.S. colleges and universities, and many schools depend on revenue from foreign students, who often pay full tuition.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency said institutions moving entirely to online learning must submit plans to the agency by July 15. Schools that will use only in-person learning, shortened or delayed classes, or a blend of in-person and online learning must submit plans by Aug. 1. The guidance applies to holders of F-1 and M-1 visas, which are for academic and vocational students.