US immigration authorities have warned foreign students at colleges offering online-only courses that they must transfer to schools with in-person classes or face deportation. The rule has students and many professors up in arms.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has ended the temporary exceptions it granted foreign students during the spring semester, leaving some students whose schools have gone online-only for fall facing removal from the country – or stranded back home. The loophole had permitted non-immigrant student visa holders to stay in the US while taking online courses due to the coronavirus epidemic, which forced universities to shut down on short notice, but while the pandemic lingers, ICE’s largesse does not.
Under the new rules, non-immigrant foreign students attending colleges that are offering only online courses for the fall semester must change schools or leave the country. “If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings,” the notice, posted on the ICE website on Monday, warned.
Those students seeking to reenter the US for the fall semester will be denied visas if their school is offering solely online courses, ICE, which administers the US’ student visa program, added. However, they can come back if the school switches to in-person classes – and indeed they must come back if that happens, or risk losing their student visa for good.
While foreign students attending colleges that offer part-online “hybrid” classes may take more than one online course, they have to jump through a number of certification hoops with the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), which will presumably be keeping a close eye on them. Students have just 10 days to notify the program if they switch to online-only courses (and presumably start the process of leaving the US before ICE catches up with them).
The notice didn’t go over well on social media, where many pointed out that these students had paid to study in the US and many came from countries where internet connections were spotty, required programs (like Google Suite or Zoom) were not available, or the time zone difference was such that they’d be forced to “attend class” in the middle of the night.
Additionally, leaving the US isn’t as easy as it used to be – the country remains the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, and many airlines have curtailed flights to and from US cities. What flights remain may be outside the affordable range for students who made the mistake of paying for their college courses up front.
Many were mystified as to why the collapsing US economy would further shoot itself in the foot by booting out the thousands of foreign students who bring heaps of money into the country every semester in rent, food and other supply costs, and other spending. Colleges too will likely feel the bite as the room and board/meal plan cash-cow that on-campus students represent runs dry.
Of course, some schools have solved that problem by charging full tuition for online-only courses. Harvard University is keeping its legendarily high tuition in place, even though just 40 percent of its student body will be allowed on campus. Those living on campus will be subject to frequent Covid-19 testing – as often as once every three days – so perhaps those living off campus get the better deal, though it’s hard to call $70,000 per semester a “deal” by any measure.
Making matters even more confusing, some 13,400 employees of US Citizenship and Immigration Services will face furloughs in under a month – some 70 percent of the agency’s workforce – unless Congress OKs $1.2 billion in emergency funding – a scenario which would presumably leave ICE to do the work of both agencies. The financial shortfall is partially due to the pandemic – USCIS, which handles legal immigration requests, has predicted a 61 percent decline in petitions through September as other nations’ citizens shied away from emigrating to the coronavirus capital of the world and federal policy forced the closure of most offices for several months. However, revenues have been declining since 2017, as the Trump administration has curtailed many of its predecessors’ open-door immigration programs.