Weird News

ICE to foreign students: If you’re just taking online classes, you can’t stay in the U.S.

The coronavirus pandemic has made education hard enough with the abrupt shift to online learning that schools, teachers, and students have had to suddenly make these past few months. Now, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would like to make that move even harder for foreign students.

On Monday, ICE posted an update to its Student and Exchange Visitor Program which disallows foreign students from remaining in the U.S. if they’re enrolled in a college or university that’s planning all online courses for the fall semester. 

Basically, if you’re in the U.S. on a student visa and attending a school with all remote learning, you have two options: You must leave the country or transfer to a school with in-person learning. Any failure to comply will result in deportation. 

Furthermore, if you’re a student planning to enter the country on a student visa in order to attend a remote-semester school in the fall, you will not be allowed in the U.S.

As schools across the country struggle with reopening plans as the fall semester fast approaches, ICE’s new rules certainly don’t make things easier. The coronavirus pandemic remains an ongoing issue, and one that’s worsening in some parts of the country.

“In yet one more in a long line of attacks on legal immigration, the Trump administration is now closing the doors to immigrant students,” said New York Immigration Coalition VP of Policy Anu Joshi in a statement. “Many of these same students have gone back home to contribute to their countries, while others have applied their knowledge as specialized workers in the U.S. economy, especially in Silicon Valley.”

There are still some exemptions to ICE’s rules. According to its update, certain students here on visa will be allowed to stay in the country if they’re attending a school “adopting a hybrid model” of both in-person and online courses. ICE has lifted its usual limit of one online course for international students under this model. However, educational institutions will need to certify that the student’s program “is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester[.]”

ICE instituted temporary exemptions earlier this year when the coronavirus pandemic shut down in-school learning. Under normal circumstances, international students here on a visa aren’t allowed to take more than one online course while in the country. But for the spring and summer semesters this year, ICE waved that rule which allowed foreign students to take a complete lineup of fully online courses. With these new changes, those exemptions will not be extended for the fall semester, barring those attending schools under the  hybrid model.

Joshi also pointed out another party who’d be hit: the academic institutions themselves.

“At a time when colleges and universities of all sizes are struggling with virtual learning and the uncertainties of COVID-19, they are now faced with losing students who have been a crucial revenue source for schools,” she said.

However, foreign students won’t technically have to leave those schools. From ICE’s perspective, online courses can be completed in the student’s home country. However, Miriam Abaya, a policy associate at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, pointed out how some students come from countries lacking good internet connection for remote learning. There’s also the issue of time zone differences, which can make these online courses especially difficult.

So, what is a foreign student to do? Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, believes that if given the choice to attend remote classes from their home country or transfer, many of those here on a student visa will go to a different school this fall in order to stay in the country — even if it means transferring out of Harvard.

“This is a shameful and short sighted decision that will have far reaching consequences,” said Joshi.

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