Foreign students who take all online courses risk losing visa this fall

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ICE requires in-person attendance after brief pause due to COVID-19 pandemic; advocates say undergrads face choice of exposure vs. deportation

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that online classes with an in-person component won’t be counted against the student.

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — A federal agency is warning foreign students against taking a full load of online classes next month, even as the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beginning this fall, non-immigrant students here on F-1 and M-1 visas can take no more than one class online at a college or university unless the class has an in-person component, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said.

Those who do will be out of compliance and may be placed in removal proceedings. Those whose schools offer only the online curriculum must depart the country or transfer to schools with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status, ICE posted Monday in its website.

“The 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,” ICE stated.

The agency had made exceptions to this requirement during the late spring and summer sessions.

Foreign students can still take more than three credit hours of “hybrid” courses — which offer some lessons online but require physical presence for others. However, ICE requires schools to certify the student through Form I-20, which attests not only that the program isn’t exclusively online but also that the student is taking the hours required to make progress toward his or her degree.

F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students pursing vocational degrees aren’t permitted to enroll in any online courses at all.

The agency said the Department of Homeland Security will publish a temporary final rule in the Federal Register. A total of 1,551,373 students were in the U.S. on F-1 and M-1 visas as of 2018, a 1.7% decrease from 2017, according to the ICE website.

The news stunned immigrant advocates fearful that many colleges may opt to encourage virtual learning this fall to keep their students from catching — and spreading — COVID-19.

“I can’t imagine anything more cruel than making a student decide between their health — and possibly their lives — and losing their student status,” said Iliana Holguin, an El Paso immigration attorney. “We shouldn’t be forcing the students to make those decisions. We should be letting them work with their universities to figure out how to best to complete their studies during this global pandemic.”

She said the U.S. government should be encouraging social distancing, which includes virtual learning at all schools. But she added that this is “typical” of a Trump administration that she says has been acting as if the pandemic “is no big deal.”

“Right now we should be encouraging everyone to do as much as they can online instead of putting them in danger,” Holguin said. “This is terrible.”

Border Report on Monday tried to get comment from West Texas and Southern New Mexico universities and community colleges, but officials there said they weren’t aware of the rule change.

Visit the BorderReport.com homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.

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