Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced modifications July 6 to temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students taking online classes due to the pandemic for the fall 2020 semester.
Under the new rule, foreign nationals participating in the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) who are enrolled in U.S. educational institutions will have to leave the country unless part of their course load this fall is taken in-person.
Due to COVID-19, SEVP instituted a temporary exemption regarding online courses for the spring and summer semesters.
This policy permitted nonimmigrant students to take more online courses than normally permitted by federal regulation to maintain their nonimmigrant status during the COVID-19 emergency.
In its announcement, SEVP said foreign students who do not transfer to in-person programs and remain in the United States while enrolled in online courses could face “immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”
Students taking in-person programs will be allowed to remain in the country, while schools with hybrid online/in-person courses will be required to certify their programs are not entirely online.
Students in English language courses and certain students pursuing vocational degrees will not be allowed to take online courses.
“There’s so much uncertainty. It’s very frustrating,” Valeria Mendiola, 26, a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government told CNN. “If I have to go back to Mexico, I am able to go back, but many international students just can’t.”
On the surface, it appears that the ICE decision is in line with the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies. But the facts belie this action.
Rather than being on the upswing, international enrollment is down in every category — undergraduate, graduate and non-degree — with 269,383 enrolled in the 2018-2019 school year, compared with a high of 300,743 new students in 2015-2016.
Further, international students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, according to the Commerce Department.
The American Council on Education, a higher education lobbying group, condemned the rule change in a statement issued Monday afternoon. ACE President Ted Mitchell said the guidance “provides confusion and complexity rather than certainty and clarity” and called on ICE to rethink its position.
“At a time when institutions are doing everything they can to help reopen our country, we need flexibility, not a big step in the wrong direction,” he wrote. “ICE should allow any international student with a valid visa to continue their education regardless of whether a student is receiving his or her education online, in person, or through a combination of both, whether in the United States or in their home country, during this unprecedented global health crisis.”