NEW YORK – Even in the dystopian times brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, a new and sudden ruling by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Monday, has caught hundreds of thousands of international students unawares, put them in the kind of jeopardy that their worst nightmares are made of: they have to get out of the country pronto or face deportation proceedings, if their fall classes are taught only online.
The temporary final rule, which gives no leeway for any modifications or public comment period, says 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 or those planning to come here for their first semester, to enter the United States.
The ruling pans all students, from undergraduate to those enrolled in doctorate programs.
“Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings,” the ICE order said.
There is hope for international students whose universities plan to have hybrid classes, with a mixture of in-class and online education. They would be exempt from the ruling. However, with coronavirus cases continuing to soar in several states, and a movement by faculty nationwide to stay off campus till it’s safer or a vaccine is available, gaining in momentum, it remains to be seen how many, if any university, would adopt the in-class method of teaching this fall. The pandemic situation is too fluid for universities to issue a clear directive, adding to the confusion.
“Until there’s a vaccine, I’m not setting foot on campus,” said Dana Ward, 70, an emeritus professor of political studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., who teaches a class in anarchist history and thought, reported The New York Times. “Going into the classroom is like playing Russian roulette.”
This comes as major outbreaks have hit college towns this summer, spread by partying students and practicing athletes.
Harvard on Monday announced it would conduct course instruction online for the 2020-2021 academic year, reported ABC News.
The University of Southern California dramatically revised its fall semester plans last week amid an “alarming spike” in cases in the region and intensified restrictions from the governor, recommending undergraduates take all classes online and reconsider living on or near campus, reported The Washington Post.
“Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools adopting a hybrid model—that is, a mixture of online and in person classes—will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online. These schools must certify to SEVP, through the Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,” certifying that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program. The above exemptions do not apply to F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students pursing vocational degrees, who are not permitted to enroll in any online courses,” the ICE order stated.
The worst part for universities and colleges is that they don’t have much time on their hands to solve the issue; help their international students from massive agony and depression.
The ICE order gives only 10 days for institutions to inform of the change if they begin the fall semester with in-person classes, but are later required to switch to only online classes; or a nonimmigrant student changes their course selections, and as a result, ends up taking an entirely online course load.
Students, however, are allowed to transfer to a university which offers classroom education in the fall. That’s a logistical nightmare which students who went through months preparing to enter college in the US, are well aware of. Given the paucity of time before the fall classes begin, it would be tough going for most to complete the required paperwork, and get a visa approved.
China ranked first among countries of origin for international students in the United States with nearly 370,000 during the 2018-2019 academic year, according to data published by the Institute of International Education. There are over 250,000 students from India. The State Department issued 388,839 F visas and 9,518 M visas in fiscal 2019, according to the agency’s data, reported Reuters.
The ICE ruling was a “blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem giving international students, particularly those in online programs, few options beyond leaving the country or transferring schools,” said Harvard University President Larry Bacow. “We will work closely with other colleges and universities around the country to chart a path forward,” he said.
According to reports, some 23 percent of US colleges plan to offer some sort of hybrid model, including the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, and Northwestern, reported Verge.com.
“Kicking international students out of the US during a global pandemic because their colleges are moving classes online for physical distancing hurts students,’ tweeted Sen. Elizabeth Warren, making her displeasure clear. “It’s senseless, cruel, and xenophobic. @ICEgov and @DHSgov must drop this policy immediately,” she wrote.
University officials scrambled Monday to adapt to the new federal guidance.
“Our institutions right now are struggling to figure out what the fall is going to look like, how best to serve their students, while keeping everybody safe,” said Sarah Spreitzer, director of government relations for the American Council on Education, reported The Washington Post. “This is just going to make things more complicated. ”
When universities rapidly shut down this spring in response to the coronavirus pandemic – many in response to governors’ orders – federal agencies granted flexibility to existing requirements that international students must take classes in person. The major associations of universities had asked federal officials to extend that flexibility into the fall, as the continued spread of the disease has led many schools to offer classes online only in an effort to prevent further spread of the disease.
Universities are trying to figure out the impact it might have “in real time,” said Lizbet Boroughs, associate vice president of federal affairs at the Association of American Universities, which represents 63 leading research universities in the United States, “because many of our universities are starting in four to five weeks.” Many campuses moved up the start of the fall semester in response to the pandemic.
“If their labs close and they’re not able to work full-time on dissertation research . . . do they have to leave the country?” Boroughs asked. “We know there are many PhD candidates who are involved in critical research to respond to this covid pandemic. ”
Monday’s announcement requires universities to certify by July 15 whether they will be fully open, operate on a hybrid model or offer online-only classes.
“What is just, to me, absolutely staggering is we have been asking for this guidance since April,” Boroughs said, reported the Post. Now universities have “nine days to respond. There’s just tremendous concern about trying to protect current students who are members of their communities, and their educational investment.”
Boroughs said she wondered about the impact on international students enrolled in the California State University System, which had announced that classes would be held online this fall for safety reasons. Would they have to leave the country, she asked, and if so, how would they do so with few international flights and with closed borders.
Ted Mitchell, the president of the American Council on Education, called the guidelines horrifying, saying they raised more questions than they answered and did more harm than good. “Iron-clad federal rules are not the answer at this time of great uncertainty,” he said in a statement.
“The guidance is unworkable and deeply harmful,” said Craig Lindwarm, vice president of governmental affairs for the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. He was concerned not just for the short-term impact of the announcement but for the message it would send long-term about the contributions international students make to the United States, reported the Post.
“There is a global competition for the best and brightest students, and the United States continues to lose ground in this competition.” One reason for that, he said, is the policy and messaging of the federal government. “That needs to be addressed.”
Immigration experts and lawyers are hoping lawsuits would prevent the students from actually leaving the country.
“I wouldn’t encourage anyone to book a flight home this exact moment. Lawsuits are inevitable,” immigration lawyer Aaron Reichlin-Melnick stated.
“So Trump is forcing foreign students to study in unsafe conditions during covid-19,” tweeted New York-based immigration attorney Cyrus Mehta.
International students and advocates for them were quick to react on social media platforms.
A change.org petition had more than 70,000 approvals within hours to reverse the ICE decision, as of going to press.
“International students pay the highest tuition to colleges and universities and shifting to an online-only syllabus does not reduce and shrink the economic burden of the high tuition costs. Forcing international students to pay these high costs while also forcing them to leave the country makes no sense and is unfair on many levels,” the petition argued.
“With the Covid-19 pandemic still spiking, the opening of in-person classes is unsafe and unnecessary given the current situation. These new SEVP modifications force universities to choose between opening in-person classes even if it is not safe or lose their International student body who account for a total of $45 Billion USD that is contributed to the US economy,” it said.