US may withdraw visas of international students if their classes are fully online

Published July 7, 2020, 5:43 PM

by Kerry Tinga

The latest news release from ICE suggests that non-immigrant students depart the US or face removal proceedings

Around the world, many universities and colleges have been moving to hybrid or fully online classes to limit in-person contact due to the spread of Covid-19. This includes prestigious American universities such as Harvard University, which has announced that all classes will be delivered online for the upcoming school year.

There are many questions for the school administrations and academia on how to provide quality level education online. The latest announcement from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, however, has added another layer of uncertainty and complication for the international students who go to the US to pursue educational opportunities.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), which is run by ICE, announced on Monday, July 6, modifications to the temporary exemptions for non-immigrant students taking online classes for the upcoming school semester.

Earlier this year, the SEVP instituted a temporary exemption regarding online courses for the spring and summer semesters. Due to the health crisis and the sudden shift to online classes by most education institutions in the US, the SEVP policy allows non-immigrant students to take more online courses that are typically permitted by federal regulations while still allowing the students to maintain their non-immigrant student status.

“Non-immigrant F-1 [academic student] and M-1 [non-academic or vocational status] students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a fall online course load and remain in the US,” wrote ICE in their latest news release relating to the modifications. “The US 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 US Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the US.”

For active students in the US who may fall under those circumstances, ICE added, “[They] must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”

There are still exemptions for students enrolled at a university that is adopting a hybrid model that mixes online and in-person instruction.

While there have always been strict US immigration regulations regarding students enrolled in online courses, some in academia argue that the exceptional circumstances ought to be taken account, particularly because many institutions have already released comprehensive plans for the upcoming academic semester.

“We are deeply concerned that the guidance issued today by the US ICE 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,” said Harvard University president Larry Bacow in a statement reacting to the modifications issued by ICE. “[It also] 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.”

The US has been one of the top education destinations for students around the world, including the Philippines. But there are numerous educational opportunities for students internationally and locally. The repercussions of these modifications may suggest that the US needs these students more than the students need the US.

In 2018, according to the US Department of Commerce, international students contributed $45 billion to the US economy. Even beyond graduation, many non-immigrant students have stayed in the US to make significant contributions.

“When we discourage or turn away international students, we lose much more than the students themselves,” wrote Cornell University president Martha E. Pollock in a CNN op-ed last year on the decline in enrollment of international students in the US, suggesting that it is in large part due to the stringent visa procedures. “We lose their inventions and innovation, their collaborative input, and their contributions to our communities.”