A new US immigration rule will prevent foreign students from entering the United States if their planned program of study transitions to online delivery for the fall 2020 semester. Similarly, students already in the country may be required to depart if their programs move to online instruction.
On 6 July, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a rule change setting out “temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students taking online classes due to the pandemic for the fall 2020 semester.”
The main impact of the new rule is that international students on F-1 and M-1 visas will no longer be permitted to enter or remain in the United States if their program of study is delivered online.
The rule reverses a previous exception established by ICE that allowed foreign students to preserve their visa status during online studies over the spring and summer semesters.
The ruling clarifies as well that F-1 visa holders may, as is the case normally, still take one class (up to three credit hours) online as part of a course load that otherwise relies on in-person instruction. Similarly, students enrolled in hybrid programs that combine online and in-person learning, may preserve their visa status and remain in the US.
To put it mildly, the rule change comes as shock to the international education sector in the US. But it also marks the latest in a series of moves by the US administration to limit legal immigration paths into the United States.
The new rule also leaves many unanswered questions about how ICE will deal with students who are unable to depart the country because of travel restrictions, limited flight service, or financial hardship.
The matter goes to court
On 8 July, Harvard University and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) filed a legal action arguing that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 6 July directive should be set aside on the grounds that it is “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.” The lawsuit asks for a temporary restraining order against the directive, and that it subsequently be permanently revoked in favour of ICE’s earlier guidance which permitted foreign students to maintain their visa status during online studies.