ICE says foreign students can’t take online-only fall classes while in U.S.

The Trump administration on Monday unveiled new fall semester rules for foreign students, including a requirement that they take in-person classes to remain in the U.S., a condition that raised concerns as certain colleges and universities are planning to use online instruction because of the coronavirus pandemic. Under the new […]

The Trump administration on Monday unveiled new fall semester rules for foreign students, including a requirement that they take in-person classes to remain in the U.S., a condition that raised concerns as certain colleges and universities are planning to use online instruction because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the new guidelines by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which oversees the U.S. Student and Exchange Visitor Program, foreigners with F-1 or M-1 visas — which are for academic and vocational international students, respectively — will not be allowed to participate in an entirely online fall semester.

The State Department will not issue those visas to students planning to attend schools that will only offer remote learning and Customs and Border Protection officials will not allow such applicants to enter the country, according to a summary of the temporary rule, which ICE said will be published in the federal government’s journal of regulations “in the near future.”

Students already in the U.S. under those programs who are planning to attend colleges or universities that will only offer online classes in the fall will need to transfer to other schools providing in-person instruction, depart the country or face potential deportation, ICE said. If they leave the U.S., the students will be able to continue the remote instruction in their home countries.

Existing regulations generally bar online-only coursework in the Student and Exchange Visitor Program. But in the spring, ICE issued an exemption allowing foreign students to take more online classes, citing the growing coronavirus pandemic.

ICE said Monday that international students planning to enroll in schools implementing a so-called “hybrid model” of online and in-person instruction will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours remotely as long as the institutions file certifications with the agency.

Upon learning of new requirements, Muhammad Ehab Rasul, an F-1 visa holder, said his anxiety “went through the roof.” The native of Pakistan does not know whether he will be able to satisfy the guidelines when he starts his fall semester at the University of South Florida, where he is pursuing a graduate degree in communications.

“It added to a growing list of things that induce uncertainty and anxiety among international students,” Rasul told CBS News. “As international students, and as minorities, we are expected to prove why we belong here and that in itself is something that drives anxiety and uncertainty. And not knowing whether you can stay at your university only further inflames that issue.”

Rasul, who has lived in the U.S. for 11 years, said completing his coursework in Pakistan would be challenging, predicting that problems with electricity, internet connection, study space, mental and physical health services and the significant time zone difference would arise. Transferring to another school in the U.S. would also be difficult, he said, because of his ongoing thesis research at the University of South Florida.

“I’m in no man’s land,” he remarked.

Advocates and immigration experts quickly denounced the new rules, noting that ICE can issue another exemption, considering the ongoing challenges for students and institutions of higher education during the pandemic. 

“This is very short-sighted. I don’t see the public interest or national interest reason for doing this,” Doris Meissner, the head of the U.S. program at the Migration Policy Institute and former commissioner of the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service, told CBS News. 

“We’re in a pandemic, it’s an extraordinary situation and even though the rules in general wouldn’t allow people in the U.S. to take purely online courses, this is a circumstance that is entirely beyond the control of the students themselves. They have no way of affecting what the policies are of the schools to which they’ve been admitted,” Meissner added.

When asked why the agency did not make another exception to existing regulations — like what was done in the spring — ICE spokesperson Carissa Cutrell said the new guidelines include some accommodations for students and schools. But she added, “as many institutions across the country reopen, there is a need to resume the carefully balanced protections implemented by federal regulations.”

Many colleges and universities in the U.S. rely on tuition fees from international students, who generally have to pay full rates.

The State Department stopped most routine visa services in March because of the pandemic and has yet to resume them. There are also travel restrictions in place for Brazil, China and certain European countries that apply to those with student visas.

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