International Students Could Face Removal From the United States If Their Schools Go Full Remote This Fall

As colleges across the nation continue to announce their reopening plans for the upcoming fall semester, many students have been devastated to find out that online classes will be their only options. For the more than one million foreign students, there is now the added devastation that they will no longer be able to remain in the United States, according to new guidelines released by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Monday, July 6. Students at universities that have implemented hybrid models of both in-person and online instruction must have proof "that the[ir] 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 classes required to make normal progress in their degree program," according to ICE’s new guidebook.  

While only eight percent of universities are planning on doing a completely online semester, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which has been tracking the plans of over 1,000 colleges and universities nationwide, 23 percent are operating in a hybrid model, which still leaves international students with the possibility of being deported if their program, year or a selection of their chosen courses are not included in the in-person options.  

This announcement follows Harvard University’s decision to allow all of its first-year students back to campus, though all classes, both graduate and undergraduate, will be conducted online. While Harvard’s President Larry Bascos condemned ICE for its decision, he put out no solution for the fact that every international student attending his University could be deported. 

Federal guidelines stipulate that international students must make the choice between transferring at the last minute, which is not an option for most students, or returning back to their home country. For the international students getting ready to attend the nine percent of universities that have yet to reveal whether their classes will be in-person or online, the State Department has made that decision for them; now they're no longer able to be issued a visa, thus they cannot legally enter the United States. 

Besides the negative impact on the students at risk, universities stand to take quite a hit as well. According to an economic study from NAFSA: Association of International Educators, international students at United States universities contributed $41 billion during the 2018-19 academic year. The vast majority of universities do not offer need-blind financial aid, need-blind admissions, or even financial aid at all to their international students, so their contributions to universities are a necessity to keep schools running. 

"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," ICE's Student and Exchange Visitor Program statement said. "If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings." The statement confirmed that students will not be deported if they take alternative measures, "such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave." But for most universities, taking a reduced course load is not an option to remain a registered student and one cannot take medical leave unless one consults with medical professionals. Even then, the road to returning from medical leave is not always easy, with some colleges rejecting students who wish to return to campus. 

How very American of ICE to hide under the cover of Covid-19 to remove international students from the country – international students that followed all of the guidelines required to attend school in this country and have been given no time to find another solution to keep their "legal" status. At least students and intructors alike are rallying behind them; here's how you can help, too