Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced modifications Monday that temporarily exempt non-immigrant students. The decision cuts across all categories of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), including the F-1 and M-1 students.
The news release published by the Department of Homeland Security said non-immigrant students are not allowed to switch to only online classes or change their course selection to participate in online classes only.
“Non-immigrant students within the United States are not permitted to take full course of study through online classes. If students find themselves in this situation, they must leave the country or take alternative steps to maintain their non-immigrant status such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave,” the news release said.
The development has thrown thousands of international students into risk of deportation. COVID-19 pandemic is forcing universities in the United States to switch completely to online studies, but for international students, it means leaving the United States.
The “alternative steps” suggested by ICE means transferring to schools with in-person instruction because universities using a hybrid model, such as a mix of online and in-person classes are exempt. But it is not so easy to transition to other schools in the middle of global health crisis, which means, it will only heighten the anxiety of the unprepared students.
But the guidance is seen as a result of president Trump’s push for schools to resume this fall. The guidelines’ announcement was made by the Immigration and Custom Enforcement on the same day that universities announced they’re going completely online.
Trump has insisted that schools and universities return to in-person instruction as soon as possible and reiterated his preachment for schools to resume in the fall after the guidance was announced.
Brad Farnsworth, vice president of the American Council on Education that represents about 1,800 students, said the announcement caught him and many others by surprise.
“We think this is going to create more confusion and more uncertainty. What we were hoping to see was more appreciation for all the different possible nuances that campuses will be exploring,” he said.
The situation is even more challenging considering that many countries are still on coronavirus lockdown that restricts international travels. And if in the fall the health crisis deteriorates, forcing the universities running the hybrid model to go completely online, the students’ lifeline would be quashed abruptly, leaving them in the middle of nowhere.
CNN reported that Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center saying the situation doesn’t question the credibility of these universities, the problem is coronavirus.
“These are not some fly-by-night universities, these aren’t scams, these are legit universities who would normally have in-person curricula but for coronavirus. The bigger issue is some of these countries have travel restrictions on and they can’t go home, so what do they do then? It’s a conundrum for a lot of students,” she said.
For some universities, the ICE decision doesn’t come close as a solution to a complex problem. Harvard University that has moved all its classes online expressed concern over the plights that international students have been thrown into.
Larry Bacow, Harvard University president said the development undermines the thoughtful approach many institutions have taken on behalf of the students.
“We are deeply concern that the guidance issued today by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement imposes 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” Bacow said.
He added that the guidance by ICE “undermines the thoughtful approach taken on behalf of students by so many institutions, including Harvard, to plan for continuing academic programs while balancing the health and safety challenges of the global pandemic.”
Many see the guidance as part of Trump’s way of advancing his anti-immigration policies. The Trump’s administration has intensified anti-immigration rules recently, using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse. Last month, the administration announced the ban on immigrant visas on the alibi of safeguarding jobs for the American people.
Though Bacow said they “will work closely with other colleges and universities around the country to chart a path forward,” the conditions appear to give the institutions a little or no choice. Part of the rules says that international students won’t be spared from deportation even if an outbreak forces their schools to move from in-person classes to online during the fall semester.