A new federal immigration directive that threatens the deportation of international college students who take all of their classes online this fall left Florida college administrators scrambling and students panicking about their futures.
The directive issued Monday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says all students with F-1 or M-1 student visas in the U.S. must go back to their home countries if their courses are entirely online in the fall, a measure many colleges and universities are adopting due to the spread of the coronavirus. Harvard University announced Monday that all of its teaching will be done remotely for the fall semester
The measure is expected to impact at least 1 million students nationwide and more than 10,000 students in the South Florida region, according to ICE officials, local university statistics and College Factual, a New York-based company that gathers college data from the Department of Education.
International students, which often pay the full cost of a university’s tuition, contributed $41 billion to the U.S. economy and $1.6 billion to Florida in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Foreign students also supported 458,290 jobs in the U.S. economy during the 2018-2019 academic year, with about 16,500 of those in Florida, data shows.
“Not having foreign students will be economically devastating for colleges and universities. These students subsidize everything that the schools do by paying full tuition,” said Tammy Fox-Isicoff, a Miami immigration attorney who has represented hundreds of international students in the last 32 years in South Florida. “Not only will it adversely impact universities, but it will deplete the local university economy. Think about the landlords, stores, restaurants.”
She added: “And how realistic is all this really? In some countries, the Internet is not free, or not as good, or even censored. You can’t just Google what you want to Google if you have to do a research paper. What about if you’re living in Korea, are you supposed to be taking classes at 1, 3, 5 in the morning?”
The Acting Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Ken Cuccinelli, went on CNN Tuesday night and defended the policy saying the government is preventing “fraud.”
“We’re not forcing universities to reopen; however, if they don’t reopen this semester, there isn’t a reason for a person holding a student visa to be present in the country,” he said. “They should go home and then they can return when the school opens. That’s what student visas are for.”
Changes under the new immigration order
Prior to the pandemic, immigration authorities required international students to enroll full time at their institution, which meant undergraduate students had to take at least 12 credit hours and graduate students at least nine credit hours each fall and spring, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Only three credit hours — usually one class — could be taken online.
Last spring, after colleges and universities suddenly shuttered their campuses to prevent the spread of the virus and moved most of their classes online, the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Program temporarily allowed international students to take more online coursework.
Under Monday’s immigration order, students with F-1 or M-1 visas at schools that will offer classes only online must either transfer to another U.S. university offering some in-person classes or return to their home country.
Students with those visas who attend colleges with “operating under normal in-person classes are bound by existing federal regulations,” which means they can take only one class online.
International students in universities that will adopt a hybrid model, or a combination of in-person and online teaching, will be allowed to take more than one class — or three credit hours — online.
Colleges that begin the fall semester offering in-person classes but then switch to only online classes will be required to notify immigration authorities within 10 days of the change.
International students in South Florida
“I don’t know what to do. I feel powerless,” a junior from Vietnam told the Herald while in tears. Due to fear of retribution regarding his immigration status, the Herald has chosen not to reveal the student’s name or the South Florida college or university the student attends.
The Vietnamese national, who migrated to Miami-Dade County in 2017 to pursue a computer science degree, said the upper-level courses he needs to take are currently offered only online.
He fears if he’s forced to return to his home country he won’t be able to graduate, and he will have lost more than three years of his life and his parents will have lost about $50,000.
“They treat us like we bring no value to the country,” the 21-year-old said. “And I can’t tell my parents. They’ve been working so hard back in Vietnam to keep me in the university. They may collapse with this information.”
Nearly 4,200 international students from 143 countries are enrolled at Florida International University, according to Maydel Santana, an FIU spokeswoman. Out of those, about 1,800 are undergraduate students and a little more than 1,500 are graduate students. The top country represented is Venezuela with 664 students, followed by China with 566 and India with 399.
FIU lists tuition for undergraduate international students as at least $29,000 per year.
FIU’s reopening plan includes four learning methods this fall: in-person, online, hybrid (a combination of in-person and online) and asynchronous remote (at the same time, but not in the same place).
In an email sent Tuesday night, FIU President Mark Rosenberg released a guide to help international students and said the university will make sure “there are enough in-person and hybrid classes to accommodate the needs” of international students.
“We will take individual student’s circumstances into consideration and appreciate the sacrifices and personal investment our international students and their families have made in coming to study at FIU,” he wrote.
Miami Dade College also plans to offer face-to-face and remote classes during its fall term. The college has 1,359 international students from 109 countries. The top country is Venezuela with 388 students, followed by Colombia with 115 and Brazil with 101.
“The reality is we are still trying to evaluate this,” wrote MDC spokesman Juan Mendieta in an email Tuesday. “We are not ready to provide an answer just yet.”
MDC charges about $4,800 per term to full-time international students enrolled in associates’ degrees and nearly $6,500 to those seeking bachelor’s degrees.
‘Greater pressure to teach in person’
Megan Ondrizek, a University of Miami spokeswoman, said in an email to a Herald reporter she could not get information about international students enrolled at UM. The Herald reached out to multiple staffers at UM’s International Student and Scholar Services, and none replied.
According to its website, UM had nearly 3,200 international students in the fall 2019 semester. That’s about 16% of its student population.
Undergraduate tuition fees are over $50,000 per year.
Lindsay Grace, the Knight Chair of Interactive Media at UM, said the majority of the students enrolled in the master’s of fine arts in interactive media are foreign. Programs like the one he teaches attract international students because it allows them to study a field that might not be available in their home countries, he said.
When the pandemic erupted earlier this year, he said some of his students traveled to their home countries because their parents felt safer that way, but others stayed because they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to come back. Recently, it took a student of his more than a week to get back to the U.S. because of rerouted and canceled flights.
“Travel has been a real stress logistically for them and this regulation is definitely complicating it,” he said. “It’s really quite a mess. It seems typical of this administration to make decisions without actually understanding the complexity of the problem.”
Another issue: Universities, which depend largely on tuition revenue, will feel a “greater pressure to teach in person, even if it doesn’t make medical sense.”
Additionally, the measure will hinder important research in the U.S., Grace said, because academia relies on graduate students primarily to help out in those projects — even those investigating COVID-19.
“What it does is it actually hobbles our research productivity as a country,” he said.
Other private universities in Miami-Dade, Broward
Nova Southeastern University, which will offer a hybrid model of learning this fall, has about 1,280 international students, said Joe Donzelli, an NSU spokesman. The private university based in Davie reported that the majority of those came from Canada and Venezuela in 2017.
That same report estimated NSU’s total enrollment at the time at nearly 20,800, which would make its international population account for about 6%. NSU’s tuition runs about $32,300 per year.
“Given that this information was just shared, NSU is working to determine specifics,” Donzelli said of the immigration directive.
Barry University, a private school near Miami Shores that will offer face-to-face courses with online components, expects roughly 500 international students this fall, mainly from Saudi Arabia, Spain and the Bahamas, said Meredith Amor, a Barry spokeswoman. That’s about 6% of its total student body, which in fall 2018 stood at about 7,200 students. Barry tuition costs $30,600, Amor said.
At St. Thomas University, a private university in Miami Gardens, 320 students, or about 6% of the school’s 4,800 students, were international students in the fall 2019, according to Provost and Chief Academic Officer Jeremy Moreland. STU tuition is about $15,500 per term.
STU will hold “the vast majority” of its classes in person, with the option for students to tune in remotely, so Moreland said international students should be able to take at least one class in-person and stay in the country legally.
“We’re definitely trying to make sense of this as is every other university right now,” Moreland said. “But what we’re reassured by is our decision not to go fully online. I don’t see it being a challenge for our international students who might have fallen victim to the intersection of public policy and universities to continue their studies.”