• Matthew Fuzi

International Students Taking Online Classes During Fall Semester Will Be Barred From U.S., ICE says

Effective this autumn, international students attending U.S. schools on a student visa will be banned from entry into the country if their institution chooses to conduct full-time online courses, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Monday.

According to ICE, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has amended its temporary exemptions for non-immigrant foreign students. Most significant among these modifications is a return to SEVP’s original policy pertaining to foreign students taking their entire course load digitally:

"Nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States. The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States."

In addition to being denied entry to the U.S., any F-1 and M-1 students currently residing in the United States who will be taking a full online curriculum this fall will be required to leave the country by the beginning of the academic year, or take other measures to maintain their legal visa status, such as re-enrolling in an institution where classes and lectures are in-person or under an approved hybrid model (both online and in situ).

Those failing to do so "may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings”, according to ICE.

As part of the nationwide response to COVID-19, SEVP issued temporary exemptions to most international students on the basis that the pandemic struck midway through the Spring 2020 semester, which afforded little opportunity for foreign pupils to return to their countries of origins, especially when many were already imposing strict travel controls. Thus, the exemptions permitted those on student visas to take more courses online lawfully, but only during the remainder of the spring and summer semesters.

As such, this announcement is not so much a departure as it is a reinstitution of standard immigration procedures regarding student visas.

Moreover, there are projected to be well over 850,000 international student visa holders set to be enrolled at U.S. universities as of this autumn, while the United States remains the worst afflicted country in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, the prospect of inviting this additional cohort of travelers into the country as new coronavirus cases continue to surge remains a coherent concern for both U.S. policymakers and foreign governments alike.

Nonetheless, in spite of ongoing lockdown restrictions on commerce and the likelihood of many university campuses remaining shuttered into the fall, there is a possibility that an economic loss could be incurred as a result of denying foreign students entry into the United States. According to NAFSA, the international student enrollment at U.S. academic institutions saw a contribution of more than $41 billion to the U.S. economy and bolstered over 458,000 U.S. jobs during the 2018-2019 academic year.

In a statement, President of the American Council on Education Ted Mitchell encouraged ICE to take a more pragmatic approach to enforcing their student visa policies.

"At a time when institutions are doing everything they can to help reopen our country, we need flexibility, not a big step in the wrong direction. ICE should allow any international student with a valid visa to continue their education regardless of whether a student is receiving his or her education online, in person, or through a combination of both, whether in the United States or in their home country, during this unprecedented global health crisis."


Matthew Fuzi is the Associate Editor for The National Times