New ICE Guidance Bans International Students From Online-Only Instruction
July 08, 2020

Note: Updated from a story posted July 6, 2020.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) yesterday issued new guidance that would prohibit international students from returning to or remaining in the United States if their colleges adopt an online-only instruction model for the fall. ACE President Ted Mitchell issued a statement calling the move "horrifying."

In a letter last week to the departments of State and Homeland Security (DHS), ACE and 38 other associations noted that guidance issued by the two agencies this spring concerning international students, such as suspending visa requirements that that did not permit them to be eligible for online instruction, allowed colleges and universities needed flexibility to continue delivering education to international students during the 2020 spring and summer semesters.

The new guidance takes the opposite tact. In a news release, ICE said that “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. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.” The guidance states that colleges and universities that offer entirely online courses must inform DHS of those plans by July 15.  In addition, institutions offering solely in-person classes, delayed or shortened sessions, or a “hybrid plan” of in-person and online instruction must update their operational plans with the DHS Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) by Aug. 1.

This is a complex situation, but the bottom line appears to be:

  • If a school is completely online, students cannot remain in or enter the United States for the purposes of their student visas.
  • Active international students who are in this country and whose school will be fully online in the fall will need to depart the United States or transfer to a school offering in-person instruction.
  • For colleges offering a hybrid model, the institution will need to certify that that the program is not entirely online, and that the student is taking the “minimum number of online classes” required to make normal progress in their degree program.

“On its face, the guidance released today by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is horrifying,” Mitchell said in his statement. “While we would welcome more clarity about international students studying in the United States, this guidance raises more questions than it answers and unfortunately does more harm than good. Colleges and universities have announced and continue to announce multi-faceted, nuanced models for reopening campuses this fall. Some are proceeding with online learning only, others intend to be primarily in-person, and many others have a range of plans for hybrid models. Regrettably, this guidance provides confusion and complexity rather than certainty and clarity."

“Our institutions right now are struggling to figure out what the fall is going to look like, how best to serve their students, while keeping everybody safe,” said ACE Director of Government Relations Sarah Spreitzer in an interview with The Washington Post. “This is just going to make things more complicated. ”

ACE, Other Associations Request International Student Guidance

The higher education associations’ July 2 letter noted that some international students have remained in the U.S. during the pandemic, others returned home, and still others intend to enroll at a U.S. institution for the first time. As colleges are preparing for the fall, they requested that DHS extend and/or expand prior guidance “to continue providing regulatory flexibility for international students enrolled at our institutions of higher education in the upcoming 2020-21 academic year and participating in coursework through various alternatives either inside or outside the U.S."

The letter also asks for additional guidance to answer questions about the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which permits international students to work in the United States for 12 months or an additional 24 months in a STEM-related job, usually after graduation, including whether there will be flexibility for international students applying for OPT who are unable to meet the one academic year of study to qualify because of remote classes due to COVID-19.

President Trump signed an executive order June 22 to suspend new H-1B, L-1, and other non-immigrant work visas for through the end of the year, along with an extension of the freeze on green cards for new immigrants. International students (under F-1 visas) and scholars (under J-1) are not included in the order. However, the suspension of the H-1B program for temporary workers in specialty occupations will likely have an impact on colleges and universities in terms of hiring plans and graduating international students and was criticized by higher education and business leaders.

COVID-19 Policy Developments

Learn more about the higher education association effort to urge Congress and the administration to craft a comprehensive response that addresses the challenges students and campuses are facing.

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