In a news release on Monday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) outlined temporary exemptions for non-immigrant students taking online classes in fall 2020. Notably, international students will be prohibited from taking a fully online course load while remaining in the U.S. The notice has added another dose of uncertainty to the lot of Chinese students pursuing a degree in the U.S.
What’s the story?
A student visa (F or M) typically only allows international students in the U.S. to take up to one online class per semester. When the Covid-19 outbreak forced most U.S. colleges to switch to remote instruction in March, ICE temporarily made accommodations for online study in spring and summer of 2020. Under the modified policy, international students could take multiple online courses without risking losing their visa status.
Under the new guidelines for fall 2020, international students attending colleges operating entirely online will not be permitted to stay in the U.S. Moreover, unless they leave the country or transfer to a school with in-person teaching, they may face “immigration consequences” including “the initiation of removal proceedings.” For colleges with normal in-person programs, existing rules permitting no more than one online class apply. Lastly, for colleges adopting a hybrid model of online and in-person teaching, students can remain in the U.S. as long as they do not take on a fully online course load.
Some institutions such as Yale University have cited the ability to swiftly transition to remote instruction as an advantage of the hybrid model, in case the pandemic worsens. If this happens, international students might find themselves scrambling to leave or transfer, per ICE’s new policy. Meanwhile, for international students who wish to take full-time online classes from their home country, they can only maintain an active visa status if online instruction is the only choice offered by the school.
The ICE announcement aligns with the Trump administration’s broader push for schools to resume in-person instruction. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security plans to officially publish ICE’s policy in the near future.
What are people saying online?
The topic has received over 50 million views on Weibo. Panicking Chinese students enrolled at U.S. universities have flooded social media with complaints that the policy has derailed their fall term plans. Some have already signed year-long apartment leases in the U.S. but are now barred from staying in the country, while some have trouble getting tickets to fly back to China, and others worry about the consequences of taking a gap year. Much uncertainty also surrounds the “study away” or “go local” options offered by colleges including Cornell and New York universities, which allow international students to temporarily enroll at a campus in their home country.
Other outraged netizens are condemning ICE’s new policy, saying that it is “inconsiderate” for international students and “has forced them into a dilemma.” They also worry that in-person classes or forced air travel to leave the U.S. will expose more Chinese students to Covid-19 infection.
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