As millions of students prepare to return to college, whether online or in-person, some are having to face some drastic challenges during the pandemic: the possibility of deportation.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement released new regulations on Monday that stated international students on non-immigrant study visas cannot stay in the U.S. if their universities only offer online courses.
What does this new regulation mean for these students?
According to immigration lawyer Ezequiel Hernandez, it essentially leaves foreign students with only two options: try to find a way to attend classes in-person during a pandemic, or take online classes from another country.
“To me, what this is doing is they’re essentially doing a process so there are no foreign students in our universities unless you have in-person instruction. Why are we treating these students differently? Is their safety less important?” asked Hernandez.
Many of Hernandez’s clients are under these types of visas. He says the Student Exchange Visitor Program, also known as SEVP, would allow students to take online classes due to the pandemic.
“Now, all of a sudden, the policy changed. It essentially says that you can’t have a full load online, and if you don’t have an in-person curriculum, you have to leave the country,” said Hernandez.
Under the new immigration guidelines released by ICE, international students must take at least some in-person classes or a combination of both.
What happens if their college is only offering online classes due to COVID-19?
According to ICE, “Students can take other measures such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status.”
This means students would need to transfer to another college in less than 60 days before school starts.
If a student cannot find in-person classes or does not follow the new rules, Hernandez says there could be serious penalties.
“The statement says they’re going to have to be ready to face immigration consequences. What that is may be initiate removal proceedings, not being able to get another visa in the future; at this point isn’t clear.”
It is a sudden change that Hernandez says doesn’t make any sense.
“Let’s remember, students from other countries or out of state pay more in tuition. So, it’s potentially more income that the universities are not going to have,” said Hernandez.
Who qualifies for a student visa?
The process to qualify for a student visa isn’t easy. Sameeh Gafoorsuhail is an international student at ASU.
“We have to show that we can afford to pay for our education,” said Gafoorsuhail.
Applicants also must go through an extensive background check. They must also prove they have the funds to pay for their college education and housing in the U.S. for at least the first year.
“This sort of policy is the type of policy targeting lawful legal immigration. In the middle of a pandemic we’re asking them to either not be safe or to return to a country that may not be safe,” stated Hernandez.
ABC15 reached out to all of Arizona’s public universities. In a statement from ASU, a spokesperson said:
“ASU does not believe the new regulations and procedures proposed by ICE will have a material impact on the university or its international students. Students attending ASU on a F-1 visa do not now generally participate in ASU online courses at any significant level. Students attending ASU on a F-1 visa in fall 2020 will continue to participate in immersive, synchronous classroom instruction both in-person and through ASU sync.”
ASU’s announcement made Gafoorsuhail feel relieved, but he says he fears for others who may not have the same opportunity.
“It’s kind of worrying. Since the pandemic is going on, you would definitely feel more comfortable taking classes online,” he said.
College students are not the only ones impacted. In some cases, these types of visas are also issued to high schoolers.
“We also have mixed status families; where the son is under a student visa and the parents under a work visa. This new policy will potentially separate families,” said Hernandez.
As far as students outside the country, the new guidelines say there will not be any new visas issued to attend schools offering only online classes during the fall.
Northern Arizona University also put out a statement regarding ICE’s announcement:
“The NAUFlex format is considered a hybrid model, which does include synchronous remote attendance as well as in-person attendance requirements. Our innovative hybrid, NAUFlex, is acceptable under the new SEVP Fall 2020 guidance for continuing international student attendance at NAU, and continuing international students will be able to remain in the U.S. under this newly released announcement. NAUFlex will allow our in-person/residential international students maximum flexibility in utilizing online and NAUFlex hybrid options in the same manner as our non-international students.”