Is the new ICE policy for international college students a slap to China?

A new policy was announced Monday by the Trump administration which affects international students enrolled in colleges or universities in the United States. The students will have to leave or face deportation if the school in which they are enrolled only offers online classes this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic. Also, international students enrolled in schools only offering online courses this fall will be barred from entering the U.S.


This is a reversal in policy from the Trump administration. Last March, when the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to disrupt our way of life due to shutdowns and other coronavirus mitigation actions, the Trump administration allowed international students to remain in the U.S. and continue their education online with other students. This policy reversal falls in line with an executive order that will suspend temporary visas for foreign workers until the end of 2020 that was signed two weeks ago.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which is operated by ICE, allowed international students to continue spring and summer classes online as schools shutdown. It was a temporary exemption This exemption will not be extended to fall classes. This affects international students on F-1 and M-1 visas. F-1 nonimmigrant students pursue academic coursework and M-1 nonimmigrant students pursue vocational coursework while studying in the United States.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced modifications Monday to temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students taking online classes due to the pandemic for the fall 2020 semester. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security plans to publish the procedures and responsibilities in the Federal Register as a Temporary Final Rule.

Temporary exemptions for the fall 2020 semester include:

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. 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.

Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools operating under normal in-person classes are bound by existing federal regulations. Eligible F students may take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online.

Nonimmigrant F-1 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 Nonimmigrant 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 above exemptions do not apply to F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students pursuing vocational degrees, who are not permitted to enroll in any online courses.


Traditionally, the rule is that international students must attend all their courses in person, with only one online course permitted per semester while studying in the U.S. According to Carissa Cutrell, acting ICE deputy press secretary, international students enrolled in schools that are only offering online courses this fall due to the pandemic will be given the option of transferring to a school that offers a mix of online and in-person classes or leave the U.S. and take online courses from their home countries.

One immigration attorney says this could be the Trump administration’s way of targeting China with a new visa policy. Chinese students make up the majority of international students in the U.S. As we know, the coronavirus pandemic began in China and Trump places the blame on China for the pandemic spreading internationally, including to America.

Allen Orr, a Washington, D.C., immigration attorney, fears the new ICE policy will pressure universities to offer in-person classes just to avoid losing revenue from international students, putting professors and students at risk of the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19.

He also said it may not be practical for many international students to take classes remotely from their own countries because of huge time zone differences.

Orr said the policy appeared intended as a slap at China, which sends the highest number of international students to the U.S., followed by India, South Korea and Vietnam.


Most importantly to American colleges and universities, the new policy will affect their bottom lines. International students provide huge financial rewards for American colleges and universities. Their economic strategies are built around an influx of international students. College administrators point to the cultural benefits of international students and American students coming together on campuses but the financial gains are not to be ignored. Schools are struggling as it is, due to the pandemic, and this change adds further uncertainty to financial planning. The most recent data shows that 872,214 international students were enrolled in the U.S. in 2018-19. They contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018. Harvard University, for example, has 10,285 international students from 155 countries. The school announced Monday they only plan to bring back 40% of undergraduate students to campus this fall. All classes are planned to be online, even for those allowed to come back and live on campus.

This fall, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 9% of US universities are planning to teach all their classes online. Like everything else during this pandemic, that can change in the coming months. Is this an intentional smack to China in response to the pandemic? Maybe. It can be seen as justified, though, given the visa restrictions on foreign workers now and also given the financial and public health disasters brought about by the pandemic. You know that the Trump administration may be on to something here if the likes of Elizabeth Warren are speaking out against it. Being from Massachusetts, there are many higher learning institutions in her state that are likely complaining to her about the policy change.


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