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ICE Announced International Students Must Leave the US if Their School Is Exclusively Online


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Students on the Harvard University campus (photo by Stijn Debrouwere via Flickr)

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced today new guidance that will have a devastating impact on international students across the country. A series of modifications to temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students forbid anyone with an F-1 or M-1 visa who is enrolled in a school offering only-online courses to remain in the US through the fall semester.

Those students will be forced to depart the country or “take other measures,” according to ICE’s website, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction in order to retain their lawful status. Alternatively, they could continue take their full course load online from their home countries. But for many students, returning home may be physically impossible due to travel restrictions, safety risks, financial barriers, and other obstacles; enrolling in classes in a different time zone may also mean sacrificing performance, emotional health, and engagement.

At schools that are offering a hybrid model of face-to-face and digital learning, foreign students on visas will not be allowed to take all their courses online, a potentially safer option other students can choose.

ICE’s announcement comes as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in most states, prompting schools and universities to carefully weigh the risks of offering in-person instruction this fall. At Harvard and Princeton, for instance, courses will remain strictly digital through the end of the year (with the former offering no tuition refunds and the latter refunding 10% of the cost.)

The challenges and limitations faced by international students have raised concerns since the early days of the virus outbreak in the US. Faculty and students alike lamented that their international peers, many of whom depend on work-study jobs to retain their lawful status, would be adversely affected by campus shutdowns. And as consulates around the world began to shutter, many prospective foreign students were unable to schedule required in-person interviews for visas, while current students worried about renewing them.

Art schools in particular have been known to welcome high numbers of international students to their campuses. In 2016, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) led the Midwest in its representation of international students, who made up 31% of its student body; at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), they accounted for 37% of all students.

According to a US News ranking, 31% of New School’s student population is comprised of international students. Recognizing that they may not be able to travel due to visa restrictions this year, the New School is offering a Global Offsite Semester Option for first years, allowing foreign students to access resources provided by partner institutions in their home countries.

At the outset of the pandemic, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) of the Department of Homeland Security temporarily waived restrictions on international students engaging in online coursework, allowing them to take more digital classes than are normally permitted by federal regulations. The new guidance released today effectively rolls back those early flexibility measures.

Students who do not comply “may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings,” according to ICE’s website.

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