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Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said Monday that international students who are taking classes entirely online this fall will not be allowed to enter the United States or must leave if they're already in the country.
The agency said affected students on F-1 and M-1 visas in the US could transfer to a school offering in-person classes to maintain their legal status. Otherwise, they risk being put in deportation proceedings.
Some schools, such as Harvard and Princeton, have announced some students will only be able to take online courses in the fall because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Under existing federal regulations, students on F-1 visas may take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online.
Under the proposed policy some students taking a combination of online and in-person classes will be allowed to take more than the maximum currently allowed by federal regulation, as long as schools certify the program is not entirely online. F-1 students in English-language training programs and those on M-1 visas, used for those in vocational programs, are not allowed to enroll in any online classes.
The Department of Homeland Security's Student and Exchange Visitor Program previously instituted a temporary exception for online classes in the spring and summer semesters in response to schools going online because of COVID-19.
Carissa Cutrell, a spokesperson for ICE, said the agency now needed to make sure it was enforcing existing federal regulation requirements.
ICE "has been trying to be flexible in the accommodations it was making but needed to make sure we were maintaining oversight with international students," Cutrell told BuzzFeed News. "This was the best way of doing so."
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, where some of the country's top universities are located, said the decision would hurt students.
"It’s senseless, cruel, and xenophobic," she said on Twitter.
Larry Bacow, president of Harvard University, said in a statement the school was concerned that ICE's guidance imposes a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem, giving international students in online classes few options beyond leaving the US or transferring. It also undermines the effort taken by schools to continue academic programs while balancing the health and safety challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, Bacow said.
"We will work closely with other colleges and universities around the country to chart a path forward" Bacow said. "We must do all that we can to ensure that our students can continue their studies without fear of being forced to leave the country mid-way through the year, disrupting their academic progress and undermining the commitments—and sacrifices—that many of them have made to advance their education."
The decision to limit the ability of certain international students to remain in the US comes just weeks after the Trump administration blocked some employment-based visas for foreign workers. It has been met with serious criticism from immigrant advocates who believe it is yet another attempt to restrict immigration to the country. Some immigration attorneys said it formed a new "travel ban.”
Greg Siskind, an immigration attorney based in Tennessee, believes Monday's advice from ICE will push schools who were teaching online-only classes to switch to in-person instruction or a combination of both because universities rely on tuition from international students. The tuition fees for international students help subsidize their US counterparts, he said.
"A lot of universities are totally dependent on international students to survive. That's particularly true in science and engineering departments where Americans are not enrolling in sufficient numbers to keep departments going," Siskind told BuzzFeed News. "This is going to result in a dramatic drop in enrollment in US schools in my view. And it's going to cause long-term damage to our higher education system."
In 2019, the total number of international students in the US was 1,095,299, according to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange.
Siskind noted that simply going abroad and taking courses online is not optimal for some students due to the time change in certain countries, among other factors.
J. Traci Hong, a former immigration judge and DHS official, said the biggest problem with the rule is that it makes students responsible for whether their schools offer in-person courses in the fall — a decision over which they have no control.
"If their schools decide to go all online because COVID-19 is in the upswing and in-person classes are more dangerous, the students may fall out of legal status and become removable because of the school’s actions," Hong told BuzzFeed News.
DHS said it plans to publish the regulation in the Federal Register as a temporary final rule.
International students on Monday were scrambling as they tried to figure out how the new rules would impact their lives. They were sending messages to college advisers and asking other students about what came next. Some voiced their concerns on Twitter.
Lisa, a 24-year-old student from Africa attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst on an F-1 visa, said her department is completely online because of the pandemic. Lisa, who asked not to publish her full name or nation of origin because she didn't want to jeopardize her visa, is now facing the very real possibility of having to return to her country, which has not been able to stop the virus's spread and faces economic collapse.
"I certainly do not want to go through this," Lisa told BuzzFeed News. "For a lot of international students like myself, returning home right now is a death sentence for many reasons, including the pandemic. Learning in the USA has been a refuge for so many of us."
Additionally, Lisa said, taking online classes back home is impossible because she wouldn't have access to the internet or a quiet learning environment.
"It appears to be a Trumpian move to force universities to be in-person in the fall," Lisa said. "I am scared. Scared that my life doesn’t matter. Scared of both the US government and my own government."
Siobhan, a 25-year old Irish college student in New York studying biochemistry, said she was worried her courses would be online-only. She also spoke on the condition that her last name not be used. Though her school has adopted a hybrid approach, her course load has been preselected for her as online-only.
She said she is trying to get an in-person class to be able to stay, but she still worries: “I have a lung condition and the policy states that if a school moves online-only, mid-semester non-immigrant students would have to leave the country. That means I'd have to take a cross-Atlantic flight to Ireland while being highly susceptible to falling severely ill from COVID.”
Ebun, a Nigerian student at Morgan State University, said she was trying to figure out the logistics of the guidance and how best to handle it. "I'm very worried," she said while noting that transferring to another school was not possible due to a scholarship she had and the fact that she was nearly done with her undergraduate studies. “I think my biggest concern right now is getting out of status.”