International students in the U.S. will be forced to attend at least some of their fall semester classes in person during the coronavirus pandemic, or their visas to enter the country will be revoked, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced on Monday.
SEVP threatened that those who stay in the U.S. while not attending in-person classes will face “immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.” Specifically, ICE won’t allow foreign students to enter or stay in the U.S. if their school switches to online-only classes.
“Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States,” SEVP wrote in the announcement.
ICE will allow students to transfer to institutions that retain in-person classes— ignoring that there is less than 60 days left to transfer before the start of the academic year for most colleges. ICE will also require that foreign students attending institutions in the U.S. operating on a “hybrid model”—i.e., both online classes and in-person sessions will be offered—certify to SEVP that they are attending at least some of their classes on their school’s physical grounds. According to ICE, “F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students pursing vocational degrees” won’t be allowed to take any online courses. International students could technically take their entire course loads online from abroad, though at that point it would likely not be worth the tuition and many students would just transfer to another school.
As CNN noted, immigration authorities have never permitted student visas for online-only classes. But pandemic conditions mean these rules could suddenly impact many of the over a million (as of 2018) international students estimated to fall under the affected categories, and who ICE could punish for violating the rules through no fault of their own.
As of July 5, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s online tracker of roughly 1,075 colleges shows that eight percent are planning to switch to online-only, 23 percent are considering a hybrid model, and 60 percent are planning on in-person classes. However, those plans could change quickly if the pandemic continues to worsen in the U.S., which seems likely.
Universities and colleges across the U.S. have faced widespread backlash from professors and staff who have pointed to clear evidence holding in-person classes during a pandemic is a bad idea. Some colleges have already changed their plans: For example, Harvard announced on Monday that even though up to 40 percent of the campus population may be present in the fall semester, all classes will be administered online. But as international students comprise a large percentage of the college population, ICE’s policy could pressure institutions on weaker financial footing to hold in-person classes, putting their entire campuses at greater risk.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Monday that the country is “still knee-deep in the first wave” of the pandemic, with Massachusetts General Hospital chief of infectious diseases Dr. Rochelle Walensky telling the network the situation is in “free fall.” The U.S. has over 2.9 million confirmed cases, and as of Monday, hit its 28th consecutive day of record-high average infections.
“There’s so much uncertainty. It’s very frustrating,” 26-year-old Harvard Kennedy School of Government grad student Valeria Mendiola told CNN. “If I have to go back to Mexico, I am able to go back, but many international students just can’t.”
For some of those international students, the new restrictions just add insult to injury: Donald Trump’s administration has shut down embassies and consulates around the world during the pandemic, preventing potentially hundreds of thousands of people including students from obtaining any entry visas at all since March. Even if they were open, many students wouldn’t be able to enter the U.S. if travel restrictions related to the coronavirus (currently applying to China, the UK, Ireland, most of Europe, Iran, and Brazil) remain in place or are expanded to new countries. Some students may also be wary that their countries of origin won’t let them return home due to travel restrictions imposed on travel from the states.
Trump has also ordered halts to green card and H1-B work visa processing, citing the economic fallout of the pandemic as cover for intentionally racist immigration policy. Immigration authorities including ICE and Customs and Border Protection have had many of their formal checks on power removed under the Trump administration, while the federal detainment apparatus has grown significantly. ICE has released few people from detention facilities despite the extreme threat of outbreaks there, which data suggests have been far worse than the agency has publicly acknowledged.
“We think this is going to create more confusion and more uncertainty,” American Council on Education vice president Brad Farnsworth told CNN. “What we were hoping to see was more appreciation for all the different possible nuances that campuses will be exploring.” Farnsworth added that this uncertainty is particularly serious for international students whose institutions could drop in-person classes.
“The bigger issue is some of these countries have travel restrictions on and they can’t go home, so what do they do then?” Theresa Cardinal Brown, the director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told CNN. “It’s a conundrum for a lot of students.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed, ICE spokesperson Cariss Cutrell claimed the agency “has been trying to be flexible in the accommodations it was making but needed to make sure we were maintaining oversight with international students. This was the best way of doing so.”