A new ICE policy announced July 6, 2020, will force many international students home if their institution chooses to conduct an online-only fall semester. Students who refuse to comply will risk being removed from the country. (Jessica Mellon/B&W Staff)

New ICE policy throws uncertainty into fall planning for international students, U.S. colleges

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This article has been updated to include comment from Cheryl Matherly, the vice president and vice provost of international affairs at Lehigh. 

International students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities delivering courses fully online for the fall semester will not be allowed to “take a full online course load and remain in the United States,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Monday. 

“If students find themselves in this situation,” the announcement reads, “they must leave the country or take alternative steps to maintain their nonimmigrant status such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave.”

These students face an ultimatum: they must either transfer to an institution that offers in-person classes or return to their home country. Otherwise, they will face immigration consequences that could include “the initiation of removal proceedings.”

The policy change affects F-1 and M-1 visa holders. F-1 visas are offered to international students “attending an academic program or English Language Program at a U.S. college or university.” M-1 visas are for international students taking “nonacademic or vocational studies” in the United States. The policy impacts both students attempting to enter the country and those already in the United States under these two visa programs.  

“If a school changes its operational stance mid-semester, and as a result a nonimmigrant student… ends up taking an entirely online course load, schools are reminded that nonimmigrant students within the United States are not permitted to take a full course of study through online classes,” read a memo sent to all universities that participate in the Student and Exchange Visitor Program. “If nonimmigrant students find themselves in this situation, they must leave the country or take alternative steps to maintain their nonimmigrant status such as transfer to a school with in-person instruction.” 

A July 7 email from Lehigh’s Office of International Students and Scholars to international students, in response to the new ICE policy, says the office recommends to the university’s colleges “that half or more of the classes taken by students be substantially in person.” The email also said OISS will be hosting a town hall for international students once they are able to collect more information. No date has been set as of yet.

A representative from OISS was not immediately available to provide clarification on its statement that it is recommending more than half of Lehigh classes be held in person. But Cheryl Matherly, Lehigh’s vice president and vice provost for international affairs, said Lehigh’s “hybrid” approach to the fall semester will allow international students to remain “in status.” She said OISS is working with each Lehigh department to ensure students can “continue their studies at Lehigh and remain in compliance with immigration regulations.”

“I was surprised and disappointed at this new guidance,” Matherly said. “International students are a vital part of our academic community, and this creates additional confusion at a time when we’re already challenged to respond to COVID-19 and support our students.”

The guidance says that institutions of higher education that are planning to offer “entirely online classes or programs or will not reopen for the fall 2020 semester must complete an operational change plan” to be submitted to SEVP by July 15. For the many colleges and universities that have yet to announce specific plans for the fall and might be considering a fully online semester, they have just eight days to draft and submit their semester plan. 

For institutions that plan to reopen in the fall with either solely in-person classes, delayed or shortened sessions, or a hybrid plan of in-person and remote classes, they must submit their operational change plans by Aug. 1. 

The policy does allow some wiggle room for universities employing a hybrid model. While normal F visas only allow a student to take a maximum of one class or three credit hours alone, these students attending an institution implementing a hybrid model will now be allowed to take “more than one class or three credit hours online” in temporary exemptions for fall 2020.

Lehigh has previously announced that it is planning to reopen for the fall semester, but with every course being held at least partially online, if not fully. Courses will also be offered in ways for students to complete who are both on campus and those who are unable to be on campus this fall.

The university has not shared any decisions on a previously planned tuition increase or how housing will work on campus, except for its decision to reduce the capacity in the Greek chapter houses. 

Recent enrollment statistics from the fall 2019 International Students and Scholars Annual Report shows that Lehigh hosts 1,059 total international students, with 470 being undergraduates and 589 being graduate students. Of these 1,059 students, 94 percent are on F visas — which is one of the two student visas being targeted by ICE’s new policy. 

The ICE policy change comes on the heels of several top U.S. institutions announcing a mostly-online semester, including Harvard University, Princeton University, Rutgers University and Georgetown University. 

Harvard President Larry Bacow, in a statement released July 6, said he was “deeply concerned that the guidance issued today by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement imposes a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem, giving international students, particularly those in online programs, few options beyond leaving the country or transferring schools.” 

The new policy marks a change in the Trump administration stance toward these visa programs since the COVID-19 pandemic forced American colleges and universities to close in March for the spring semester. SEVP instituted temporary exemptions regarding the online study policy for spring and summer semesters in response to the pandemic, which allowed the appropriate visa holders to take more online courses than normally allowed during the health crisis.

But as schools across the country weigh the health risks of reopening their campuses while coronavirus cases surge nationwide, such exemptions are being pulled back — in an effort to encourage campuses to reopen. 

The new policy has ignited a fierce response, with opponents claiming the administration is using international students as a bargaining chip to force schools into reopening, as many of these institutions rely on international students for enrollment and tuition. One petition opposing the policy already has over 110,000 signatures. 

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, said in a July 7 interview with CNN that “[the new policy]is now setting the rules for one semester, which we’ll finalize later this month that will, again, encourage schools to reopen.” 

“If [universities]don’t reopen this semester, there isn’t a reason for a person holding a student visa to be present in the country,” Cuccinelli told CNN. “They should go home, and then they can return when the school opens.”

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