In a news release on Monday, ICE announced that "The U.S. 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."
The announcement came just after Harvard announced all of its classes would be conducted via remote learning. Harvard is usually considered the standard model for university operation and it is anticipated that many other colleges will follow in its footsteps when it comes to fall semester plans. After all, Harvard was the first university to announce that its spring semester would move online and its students had to leave campus back in March.
Other universities, like Rutgers, announced plans to hold classes through a mixture of in-person and remote instruction. These schools will have to file paperwork with ICE's Student and Exchange Visitor Information System to ensure that each nonimmigrant international student is not taking a fully-online course load. Nonimmigrant international students attending colleges with normal in-person instruction will not be able to take more than one class (or three credits) online, even if they have a health condition that may put them more at risk for contracting COVID-19.
ICE had previously made exemptions during the spring and summer semesters to allow nonimmigrant international students to stay in the U.S. on student visas while taking a fully-online courseload. The decision to reverse the exemption puts over a million international students at risk of deportation and puts pressure on colleges across the United States to at least adopt the hybrid model of some mix of in-person and online instruction. Some universities like Princeton have decided to allow students onto campus for one semester at a time and attend a mixture of in-person and online courses. Only first-year students and rising juniors would be allowed on campus this fall. This means that sophomore and senior international students would be unable to obtain visas for the fall.
If a second wave prompts classes to go completely online like the spring semester, nonimmigrant international students may have just 10 days before ICE is notified of the change and the student becomes at risk for deportation.
The alternative solution? Transfer to schools with in-person instruction.
In the news release, ICE suggests that nonimmigrant international students with an all-online courseload "depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status."
Harvard's international students have no choice but to leave the U.S. or transfer. It's likely that many other international students will find themselves in the same situation as schools announce online-only semesters. This puts an unjust burden on nonimmigrant international students and forces them to choose between getting deported and transferring colleges. For those facing dire situations in their home country and who are unwilling to transfer, this is an almost impossible decision. There are added complications when you factor in the many travel restrictions placed on those coming to and from the U.S., the country with the highest case count in the world.
It also puts immense pressure on colleges to choose between losing international students to transfers or deportations or put students at risk with in-person instruction during a global pandemic. The sudden loss of students could deal another financial blow to universities already struggling as a result of COVID. International students studying in the U.S. are reported to have contributed $41 billion to the U.S. economy. ICE's ultimatum has created a lose-lose situation for American universities and their international student population.