By Katy Murdza, Immigration Impact
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge across the United States, many universities have chosen to temporarily move to online-only classes to protect public health. However, new guidance from the Trump administration will not allow international students to stay in the United States if their classes move online this fall.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) oversees the program and the data/tracking system schools use to enroll international students. Over one million students participate in the program each year. This allows them to study at K-12 schools, colleges, universities, seminaries, conservatories, and language training programs.
By regulation, academic students (F-1) are limited to one online class or three credit hours per term as part of their full course load. Vocational students (M-1) cannot take any. When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit in March, ICE issued temporary exemptions allowing international students to move to online-only classes during the spring and summer semesters. ICE originally stated that these exemptions would apply “for the duration of the emergency,” but now will not continue into the fall.
Students whose programs have moved fully online will no longer be allowed to remain in the United States. They either “must depart the country” or transfer to a school offering in-person instruction. If they do not leave the United States or transfer, ICE says that students “may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”
The restrictions apply to both incoming and continuing international students. If an international student wishes to attend an American school that only offers online classes, the student won’t be granted a visa.
Students already in the United States would have to transfer universities or leave the country even if their program switches to fully online partway through the semester. Exceptions exist for the very limited number of students who qualify for a reduced course load or medical leave.
Students whose programs switch to a “hybrid” model, with some in-person classes and some online classes, can remain in the United States. However, these students will need certification from their university that they are taking the minimum number of online courses possible. Students in vocational or English language training programs will not be allowed to take any online classes.
Many universities have already announced that they will be holding classes completely or partially online this fall. The majority plan to hold in-person classes, but 9% plan to hold classes fully online, 24% are planning for a hybrid model, and 7% have not yet decided.
These decisions could change depending on the progression of COVID-19 over the summer. Yet ICE has imposed very short deadlines on universities to update operational plans and issue new eligibility certificates to international students.
The end of the exemptions will impose unreasonable hardship on students and universities. Students may not be able to participate in online courses from their home countries due to internet connectivity issues or time differences. Certain online resources are not available in some countries, such as G Suite in China. Some students may not be able to return home due to financial hardship or ongoing COVID-19 travel bans. For some, returning would mean separation from a U.S. citizen spouse or child.
Academic institutions are already under financial pressure, with enrollment dropping due to the economic recession and loss of the in-person college experience. Students who cannot study this semester might not return to their programs later, choosing to drop out. Some who try to return may be prevented from doing so by COVID-19 travel restrictions. ICE’s guidelines force schools to choose between losing international students and risking public health. The decision also damages the United States’ reputation as a leader in international education.
At the time of the announcement, Harvard University had already announced that its classes will be completely online in the fall. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have since filed a lawsuit challenging ICE’s policy.
Harvard president Larry Bacow stated:
“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.”
Losing international students could also result in economic loss at a time when the U.S. economy is already in trouble. International students contribute over $40 billion to the economy and support over 400,000 jobs each year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has required unprecedented flexibility in procedures at every level of our society. Immigration should be no different. Immigration agencies should make exceptions to requirements that cannot reasonably be followed during the pandemic.
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