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WASHINGTON: The Trump administration on Monday brought a wrecking ball to the already difficult life of foreign students in America in the time of the pandemic, ruling that they have to leave the country or risk deportation if they cannot attend in-person courses for the fall semester. Fully online courses that some universities and colleges have reverted to because of the coronavirus will be insufficient to stay in the US and could result in their visa being invalidated unless they transfer to institutions that offer in-person courses.
The notification by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau sent shock waves through the more than one million foreign students in USA, including 200,000 Indians and 400,000 Chinese who form the top two contingents. Thousands of students are already grappling with disruption caused by the pandemic, ranging from housing issues to having to take virtual or online courses that many schools have switched to even within the US, even though they have paid fees upfront for in-person classroom learning.
As per the ICE notification, non-immigrant 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 starting September. The US 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 US Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States, notification says.
“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 ICE notification warns.
The notification also clarifies that foreign students attending schools adopting a hybrid model—that is, a mixture of online and in person classes—will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online. These schools must certify to SEVP, through the Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Non-immigrant Student Status,” certifying that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program.
The notification was roundly condemned by many educators, student bodies, and civil liberty activists, some of whom saw a darker design by the Trump administration to block yet another immigration route that is widely seen as having benefited America, while delivering a body blow to the country’s academia that has also been enriched by foreign students. The move to choke foreign student entry to the U.S came after immigration hardliners failed last month to end the optional training program that some of them see as foreigners taking away “American jobs.”
“ICE is now trying to deport students enrolled in colleges and universities that are teaching exclusively online due to Covid-19. This is needlessly cruel and must be challenged in court,” Julian Castro, a former Obama administration said, while the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) accused the administration of exploiting the pandemic “to target even more people, simply because they are immigrants.”
Meanwhile, foreign students, already harried by the disruption, including the inability to go home during the summer break because of lack of flights, discussed the difficulties in continuing virtual education from their home country – from spotty internet connection to having to log in at odd hours (if they lived in a diametrically different time zone), not to speak of incongruity of ponying up top dollar for online courses instead of in-person instruction and practical training.
Some academic and American students began exploring ways to facilitate foreign students meeting the ICE metrics and staying in the US, including one Harvard professor who offered an “in-person masked course” titled “What Pandemic? How the White House confronted international students more aggressively than the virus.”

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