Recent spikes in the number of new coronavirus cases are threatening America’s reopening efforts, and suggest that some form of quarantine will persist through to the end of the year. In response to this possibility, many of America’s college and universities are announcing that some or all of their fall semester classes will be held remotely; other schools are still in the process of deciding how classes will be offered in the fall.
Either way, public health data are clear about one thing: we are still in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed over 130,000 American lives to date. College classes — wherein students spend an hour or more, indoors, crowded into tight quarters, and breathing recirculated air — can only exacerbate coronavirus spread on college campuses. While many instructors are still figuring out how to adapt their classes for remote learning (to varying degrees of success), one thing is irrefutable: online classes reduce the risk of coronavirus spread compared to in-person classes. Thus, it makes sense for schools to hold many of their fall classes — especially large lecture classes — remotely: this is the only solution that maximizes the safety of students.
And yet, in an announcement that is completely out of step from these discussions, ICE said today that international students on F-1 or M-1 visas will not be permitted to remain in the United States if they are taking all their classes online. Students attending schools holding some in-person classes will be permitted to take some (but not all) of their classes remotely, as long as the school certifies that they are taking the minimum number of classes online as would still allow them to progress to their degree. Students enrolled in schools that are offering all classes online would be required to transfer schools to avoid deportation.
Students who violate this policy will face consequences, including the possibility of deportation. In other words, this fall, ICE will require international students to take at least one in-person class – even at the risk of their own health – in order to remain in the country. Schools weighing how they will adapt coursework offerings for the fall will be incentivized to adopt a hybrid in-person/online model (or a fully in-person model) to protect international students, a decision that will risk not only the health of all students but also instructors and other campus staff.
Here is the text of ICE’s new guidelines:
1. Nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States. 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. Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs 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.
2. Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools operating under normal in-person classes are bound by existing federal regulations. Eligible F students may take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online.
3. Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools adopting a hybrid model—that is, a mixture of online and in person classes—will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online. These schools must certify to SEVP, through the Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,” certifying that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program. The above exemptions do not apply to F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students pursing vocational degrees, who are not permitted to enroll in any online courses.
This decision is baffling and horrifying. The novel coronavirus spreads readily in indoor spaces, and can seriously compromise patient health resulting in lifelong chronic conditions even among those who recover. No student should have to choose between the risk of coronavirus infection or the threat of deportation.
Meanwhile, international students forced to return to their country of origin may not have access to resources they need to do pursue their college coursework. International students (like some non-international students) may struggle with internet connectivity, or other computer access issues. Some students may not have stable home lives or may be living in areas of political unrest not conducive to effective study. Many international students may live in timezones very different from the United States, and would have to take their classes in what would amount to the middle of the night.
ICE appears intent on ignoring the fact that we are living in the middle of a global pandemic. This policy demands international students risk their lives to attend school, and punishes them with deportation if they can’t or won’t.
ICE’s announcement against F-1 and M-1 students is the latest salvo in the Trump administration’s ongoing war against immigrants. Trump has repeatedly attempted to eliminate DACA and to criminalize migration across the US-Mexico border. Earlier last month, Trump also announced suspension of new work visas and green cards for documented immigrants.
International students make up over 5% of all students enrolled in American colleges and universities. More than half of international students are visiting scholars from China, India, or some other Asian country.
Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to USCIS not ICE.