International students currently enrolled in the U.S. may soon be deported if their university switches to online-only learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new guidelines released by the U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (I.C.E) agency on Monday.
This decision comes on the heels of many California State University (CSU) colleges, including Fresno State, rolling out plans for the fall 2020 semester. Many of the universities have decided against fully reopening campuses, while also only allowing a minimal amount of in-person instruction.
According to director of public affairs for the CSU Chancellor’s office Toni Molle, the chancellor’s office is currently reviewing the new guidance from the government and working with individual campuses to re-review online and in-person offerings.
“We are currently reviewing the new guidance to determine how to reduce impacts to students and will provide information to campuses and students in the near future,” Molle said. “The Chancellor’s Office is currently working with individual campuses to re-review online and in-person offerings to determine if they meet the new ICE directives.”
Under the new guidelines, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) indicates three different scenarios for international students holding F-1 or M-1 student visas while attending universities operating entirely online, normal in-person or the hybrid model.
On June 26, Fresno State released its fall 2020 plan announcing that the semester would be using the hybrid model, a mixture of online and in-person classes. The university identified 128 essential courses made available for in-person instruction.
Under the hybrid model, students holding an F-1 visa will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online while attending in-person classes and are able to take a course if it is partially taught in-person.
For “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,” schools must certify through SEVP that the program is not entirely online, that a student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required for normal progress in their degree program.
These exemptions do not apply to F-1 students in English language programs or M-1 students pursuing vocational degrees, as they are permitted from enrolling in any online courses.
In the fall of 2019, 627 international students were enrolled at Fresno State, a significant drop in the last four year, according to university data.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, there is a concern that if there are surges in COVID-19 cases once the semester begins that the universities will once again shut down and switch to online-only instruction.
According to the guidelines, if the university decides to switch to online-only instruction, the student would have to leave the country. Students within the United States are not permitted to take a 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 nonimmigrant status such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave,” the guidelines reads.
The rule does allow for students to take a full online course load in their home country.
The government’s decision is a complete 180-degree shift from the spring and summer semesters, as the policy in place during those semesters allowed for international students to take more online courses than normally permitted by federal regulations to maintain their nonimmigrant status during the COVID-19 emergency.
In May, the CSU system was the first in the nation to close campuses while also allowing for limited in-person instruction. The chancellor’s office says that international students add diversity to the CSU campuses and the new policy could impede the learning of more than 11,300 students.
“International students add to the vibrant diversity of CSU’s 23 campuses,” Molle said. “The new policy guidance from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could immediately lead to slowing or even worse, halting of more than 11,300 students’ paths to achieving their higher education goals and potential contributions to our communities and economy.”
For students attending schools operating under normal in-person classes that are bound to existing federal regulations and can remain in the U.S. The students most affected by the federal regulations are students who attend a university operating entirely online.
The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas for the fall semester nor will the U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students from entering the U.S. An active student at a fully online university must depart the country or transfer to another university that offers in-person instruction to remain in lawful status.
If they do not take the appropriate measures to ensure that they are taking in-person classes, they may face immigration consequences including the initiation of removal proceedings, according to the guidelines.