ICE: International students must leave US if universities only offer online classes this fall

The Trump administration announced international students will have to leave the United States, 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 U.S.

The news comes as some colleges and universities, including Harvard University, say they will only offer online classes in the fall to protect students and staff from the new coronavirus.

The move, a reversal from the spring when international students were allowed to remain in the U.S. to attend online-only classes, could represent a major economic blow to colleges and universities as well as local communities over the loss of tuition and other revenue from international students who typically pay full price.

It comes at a time when colleges and universities are are already implementing layoffs, furloughs and other cost-clotting measures to offset a loss in revenue amid the coronavirus pandemic as more and more students opt to defer attending college.

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The move drew immediate criticism from immigration advocates who say it is part of the Trump administration’s ongoing attempt to restrict legal and illegal immigration into the U.S.

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 in Europe. 

The policy memo comes two weeks after President Donald Trump signed an executive order that will suspend temporary visas for foreign workers until the end of 2020.

Kuck said the new policy is directly contrary to the memo that was sent out in March allowing international students to remain in the U.S. while attending online only classes because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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 U.S.

In March, however, ICE made an exception for international students attending schools that had switched to online classes only amid the pandemic.

There were 872,214 international students enrolled in the U.S. in 2018-19, the most recent year data was available, according to the Institute for International Education, a State Department-backed initiative that tracks international student enrollment in the U.Sand internationally.

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

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

Harvard currently has 10,285 international students from 155 countries, according to their 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 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, 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 U.S. will maintain their non-immigrant 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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Universities and colleges rely on international students for a significant share of their revenue. The move requiring them to go home if only online courses are offered could put added 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 other 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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U.S. schools benefit from the research conducted by international students, said Kuck, the immigration attorney.

More than 60% of STEM grads are foreign students, he 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,” Kuck said.

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

He also 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 U.S., followed by India, South Korea and Vietnam.

Trump frequently blames China for the coronavirus pandemic.

ICE’s policy likely will send international students and U.S. schools scrambling to figure out how to respond.

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

Follow Daniel Gonzalez on Twitter @azdangonzalez

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