International students who planned to attend US colleges this fall were given a new threshold to cross by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement yesterday. If their classes will be operated entirely online this fall, those students will be prohibited from remaining in the US or traveling here on a student visa.
In addition, if students come back to the US for in-person classes this fall but the school later switches to online-only instruction, those students must either leave the US or transfer to a school that offers courses in person.
In black and white: "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 states," the rule notes. "If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings."
Students at colleges that offer a mix of online and in-person courses are able to continue studying in the US, as long as the student doesn't take an entirely online course load, the rule notes.
Both university administrators and students have come out against the temporary ruling, as it will cause massive disruptions for international students, many of whom have already paid for the fall semester and secured housing.
The rule was issued on the very same day that Harvard University announced it would take all classes online this fall. Harvard President Larry Bacow issued a statement yesterday expressing concern over the new ICE rule.
"This guidance 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," Bacow said. "We must do all that we can to ensure that our students can continue their studies without fear of being forced to leave the country mid-way through the year, disrupting their academic progress and undermining the commitments — and sacrifices — that many of them have made to advance their education."
Many international students are scrambling to adjust to the new ruling, particularly since not every school has announced its fall plans yet. For instance, one rising junior at NYC's Fashion Institute of Technology tells College Confidential that the school, part of the State University of New York system, has not yet said whether it will offer online, in-person or hybrid instruction this fall. "I'm here from China on a student visa, but I have a lease in New York, I work part-time, and I have only gone back to China once since I moved here for school," she says.
If she has to leave the US, she will need to swiftly find someone to sublease her apartment or keep paying New York rent despite being in China. In addition, she says, she'll leave her employer in the lurch and will have to abandon several projects she's doing with other students. "There's a ripple effect that people don't think about," she notes.
The announcement leaves the entire community in a difficult position, with administrators trying to mitigate the virus' impact while international students are left with unanswered questions about the regulations.
"Ending the temporary rule without prior notice and with only weeks to go before the start of the fall semester puts foreign students in the untenable situation of finding a school that will allow a late transfer and risk the possibility of being exposed to the COVID virus, or leaving the US and possibly abandoning their plans to study in the US," says Diane Hernandez, an attorney at the national law firm Hall Estill. "Travel in and out of the US is unpredictable right now, leaving those students who are forced to leave the US without clear options; and for those students that are able to enter the US to study in-person, they are faced with the fact that US consulates abroad are still closed and unable to issue any new visas. The announcement fails to address these issues," Hernandez says.
It remains to be seen how many students will have to ultimately leave the US, but it's clear that the new ruling will impact thousands of students, if not more. "Some one million international students attend US colleges and universities annually, contributing greatly to this country's intellectual and cultural vibrancy," said American Council on Education President Ted Mitchell in a statement. "While we would welcome more clarity about international students studying in the United States, this guidance raises more questions than it answers and unfortunately does more harm than good," he adds.
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