US now says new foreign students can’t enter if courses online

New students not already enrolled as of March 9 unlikely to get visas if they intend to take only online classes.

Harvard University
Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, challenged the Trump administration's previous policy that would have forced some international students to transfer schools or leave the US [Saba Aziz/Al Jazeera]

A week after revoking sweeping new restrictions on international students, federal immigration officials have now announced that new foreign students will be barred from entering the United States if they plan to take their classes entirely online this fall.

In a memo to college officials, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Friday said new students who were not already enrolled as of March 9 will “likely not be able to obtain” visas if they intend to take courses entirely online.

The announcement primarily affects new students hoping to enroll at universities that will provide classes entirely online as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

International students who are already in the US or are returning from abroad and already have visas will still be allowed to take classes entirely online, according to the update, even if they begin instruction in-person but their schools move online in the face of a worsening outbreak.

The rules apply to “nonimmigrant students in new or initial status after March 9” under the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), ICE wrote on its website.

“Additionally, designated school officials should not issue a Form I-20 to a nonimmigrant student in new or initial status who is outside of the US and plans to take classes at an SEVP-certified educational institution fully online.”

ICE rescinded previous guidelines that could have sent thousands of students – largely enrolled in universities but also some in grade schools – home.

An ICE report this year showed there were 1.55 million active non-immigrant student visas under the SEVP in 2018. About 1.3 million of those students were enrolled in higher education courses at universities.

The American Council on Education, a group of university presidents, said it was disappointed by the latest guidance.

“We have been fearing this and preparing for this. We’re still disappointed,” said Brad Farnsworth, vice president of the group.

The previous move was challenged by more than 200 universities and 17 US states.

“The Trump administration didn’t even attempt to explain the basis for this senseless rule, which forces schools to choose between keeping their international students enrolled and protecting the health and safety of their campuses,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement.

Harvard, MIT, Johns Hopkins and many other universities filed their own lawsuits.

As a hearing in the Harvard and MIT court case was getting under way on July 14, the administration rescinded the ruling requiring international students to transfer schools or leave the country if their colleges were to hold classes entirely online.

International students are usually permitted to take just one online class each term, though the coronavirus pandemic has caused universities to expand online-only courses.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the new rules “mirrored the desires of some at the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent agency, and at the White House, where some officials were taken off guard by ICE’s July guidance”, citing two unnamed sources familiar with discussions.

Lawsuits also said the policy would damage their economies. New York City said international students contribute $3bn to its economy every year.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies