ICE Says Online University Won’t Qualify Students For International Visas


International students will be forced to leave the United States or be transferred to another college if their schools offer fully online courses this fall, according to new guidelines released Monday by federal immigration officials.

The guidelines, issued by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, put additional pressure on universities to reopen, even amid growing concerns about the recent spread of COVID-19 among young adults. Colleges received the advice the same day some institutions, including Harvard University, announced that all education would be offered at a distance.

President Donald Trump has insisted that schools and colleges resume in-person teaching as soon as possible. Shortly after the guidelines were released, Mr. Trump reiterated on Twitter that schools were to reopen this fall, adding that Democrats wanted to keep schools closed “for political reasons, not health reasons.”

“They think it will help them in November. Wrong, people understand! Mr. Trump wrote.

Under the updated rules, international students must take at least some of their classes in person. New visas will not be issued to students in fully online schools or programs. And even at colleges offering a mix of in-person and online classes this fall, international students won’t be able to take all of their classes online.

This creates an urgent dilemma for the thousands of international students who found themselves stranded in the United States last spring after the coronavirus forced their schools to move online. Those attending schools that stay online must “leave the country or take other action, such as transfer to a school with in-person instruction,” according to the guidelines.

The American Council on Education, which represents college presidents, said the guidelines are “horrible” and will lead to confusion as schools look for ways to safely reopen.

One particularly concerning provision says that students will not be exempted from the rules even if an epidemic forces their schools to go online during the fall term. It’s unclear what would happen if a student found themselves in this scenario but faced travel restrictions from their home country, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the board.

“This is going to cause enormous confusion and uncertainty,” Hartle said. “The ICE clearly creates an incentive for institutions to reopen, whether the circumstances of the pandemic warrant it or not. “

The international education group NAFSA has lambasted the rules and said schools should have the power to make decisions that are right for their own campuses. He said the guidelines “were harmful to international students and endangered their health and well-being as well as that of the entire higher education community.”

Almost 400,000 foreigners received student visas in the 12-month period ended September 30, down more than 40% from four years earlier. School authorities are partly to blame for the delay in visa processing.

Colleges in the United States were already expecting a sharp drop in international enrollments this fall, but the loss of all international students could be disastrous for some. Many depend on the tuition income of international students, who typically pay higher tuition fees. Last year, American universities attracted nearly 1.1 million international students.

Critics of Mr. Trump were quick to attack the new guidelines. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Independent from Vermont, said “the cruelty of this White House knows no bounds.”

“International students are threatened with a choice: risk their lives by going to class in person or be kicked out,” Sanders said in a tweet. “We must resist Trump’s bigotry. We must ensure the safety of all of our students.

Dozens of colleges have said they plan to offer at least some in-person classes this fall, but some say it’s too risky. Last week, the University of Southern California reversed the course on a plan to bring students to campus, saying the classes will be hosted primarily or exclusively online. Harvard announced Monday that it will invite freshmen to live on campus, but classes will remain online.

Immigration authorities suspended some requirements for international students at the start of the pandemic, but colleges were awaiting advice on what would happen this fall. The ICE informed schools of the changes on Monday and said a formal rule would be forthcoming.

The announcement was the latest strike linked to the Trump administration’s pandemic against legal immigration. Authorities last month extended the ban on new green cards to many people outside the United States and extended the freeze to include many people on temporary work permits, including at high-tech companies, multinational corporations and seasonal employers.

The administration has long sought to dramatically reduce legal immigration, but the goal was elusive before the coronavirus.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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