International students must leave USA if universities offer only online classes this fall

The Trump administration announced international students will have to leave the USA, or face possible deportation, if the college or university they attend switches to online-only classes in the fall because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Similarly, international students enrolled in colleges or universities offering only online courses this fall will be barred from entering the USA.

In the spring, international students were allowed to attend online-only classes. The reversal could be a major economic blow to colleges and universities, as well as  communities, over the loss of tuition and other revenue from international students who typically pay full price.

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The new policy, issued in a memo by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is “clearly designed to chase foreign students out of the United States and to bar foreign students who were coming to the U.S. from entering the country if the schools they are going to are only online,” said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta-based immigration lawyer and representative of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, an advocacy group.

Kuck predicted the ICE policy will push international students from U.S. schools to schools in Canada and Europe. 

Two weeks ago, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to suspend temporary visas for foreign workers until the end of 2020.

Kuck said the new policy is contrary to a memo sent out in March allowing international students to remain in the USA while attending online-only classes.

International students generally must attend all of their courses in person and are prevented from taking more than one online class a semester while studying in the USA.

In March, ICE made an exception amid the pandemic.

Mabel Lui, a senior at Scripps College, told USA TODAY she hoped ICE would let students keep attending online classes. 

“If they did, it would protect international students and give them more flexibility on whether they want to conduct their studies in the U.S. or from home,” said Lui, who is from Hong Kong. “Instead, it seems like they are kicking students out of the U.S. if their institution goes entirely online.”

The new guideline “fails international students,” she said, because “there’s a lack of clarity and ambiguity within the guidelines and a lot of questions unanswered.”

There were 872,214 international students enrolled in the USA in 2018-19, the most recent year data was available, according to the Institute for International Education, a State Department-backed initiative.

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International students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, the institute said.

Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said in a statement that the guidance by ICE “imposes a deeply blunt, one size fits all approach to a complex problem.”

Harvard has 10,285 international students from 155 countries, according to its website. The school announced Monday that it plans to bring up to 40% of undergraduates back to campus for the fall semester.

The guidance “undermines the thoughtful approach taken … by so many institutions” to welcome back students, Bacow said.

Under the policy memo announced Monday, international students enrolled at institutions that offer classes entirely online in the fall will be given the option of switching to a school that offers a hybrid of online and in-person classes or leaving the country and taking online classes from their home countries, said Carissa Cutrell, acting ICE deputy press secretary.

Those who decide to return to their countries while enrolled in all online classes in the USA will maintain their nonimmigrant visa status, Cutrell said.

“So you can engage in remote learning as any other student would at that school, but you would just do it from home as the other students would,” Cutrell said.

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Requiring international students to go home could add financial strain on U.S. colleges and universities, said Doris Meissner, senior fellow and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute.

“Universities and colleges are struggling enormously as it is to figure out how to provide education under these pandemic circumstances, and so this adds a much greater burden,” Meissner said. “International students are so baked into the higher education, environment and model that exists in this country.”

U.S. schools benefit from international students in ways beyond financial, including through cultural exchanges, Meissner said.

“They are an important part of the student body. They make it possible for native-born students to meet people from all over the world,” Meissner said. “They create the possibility for international students who come here and experience living in this country and experience going to colleges, universities in this country at a really formative time in their growing up.” 

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More than 60% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) grads are foreign students, Kuck said.

The new policy “could have a massive impact on the research and the extraordinary developmental work done by universities and colleges in their Ph.D programs and their post-doc programs,” he said.

Allen Orr, a Washington immigration attorney, fears the ICE policy will pressure universities to offer in-person classes to avoid losing revenue from international students, putting professors and students at risk of the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19.

He said it may not be practical for many international students to take classes remotely from their own countries because of huge time zone differences.

Orr said the policy appeared intended as a slap at China, which sends the highest number of international students to the USA, followed by India, South Korea and Vietnam.

Trump blames China for the coronavirus pandemic.

Contributing: Rachel Leingang, Arizona Republic; Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY.

Follow Daniel Gonzalez on Twitter @azdangonzalez

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: ICE: Foreign students must leave USA if universities go online-only

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