The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has announced that in order to remain in the country for the fall 2020 semester, international students must take in-person classes at their schools. Students who remain in the US but take entirely online courses may face “immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”
“There will still be accommodations to provide flexibility to schools and nonimmigrant students, but as many institutions across the country reopen, there is a concordant need to resume the carefully balanced protections implemented by federal regulations,” states ICE’s announcement.
New students matriculating at schools offering fully online programs will not receive visas, per ICE. Students who are already enrolled at such schools will be required to transfer or leave the country. Eight percent of US colleges are planning for an online-only semester, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, including Harvard and Bowdoin, though some of those schools plan to invite a reduced number of students back to campus.
Students attending schools that offer a hybrid model will be allowed to remain in the US, provided that they are not taking a fully online course load. Schools will be required to certify to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) that the students are taking “the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program.”
Meanwhile, international students who remain in their home countries will only be permitted to maintain their “Active status” and take an online courseload remotely if their school is online-only.
At least 23 percent of US colleges plan to offer some sort of hybrid model, including the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, and Northwestern. Schools that will be online must notify SEVP by July 15th, while those using a hybrid option must outline their plans by August 1st.
Some institutions have cited the ability to transition to fully online instruction as a benefit of their hybrid model. Such a move could leave many students scrambling under ICE’s new policy; any student who switches to an online-only program during the semester will be required to leave or transfer at that time, per the announcement.
F-1 visas, which allow international students to study full-time in the US, typically only allow holders to count one online class per term toward their course of study. After the COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges around the country to move all instruction online, SEVP granted temporary exemptions to that policy, allowing international students to continue to take multiple remote courses without risking losing their visas.
The new regulation is one of multiple recent actions that the Trump administration has taken to restrict immigration in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In June, President Trump ordered immigration officials to deny entry stamps to a range of guest worker visas, including H-1Bs.