Colleges decry rule barring international students from online-only instruction

A new rule from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is further complicating an already uncertain time for international college students by prohibiting them from staying in the U.S. if they attend colleges and universities offering only online instruction, The Wall Street Journal reports. The news comes as a growing number of colleges are announcing plans for the fall semester with an eye toward preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

An abrupt reversal

Under normal circumstances, federal rules bar international students in the U.S. from taking more than one online class per term. However, ICE had waived that requirement in the spring when the coronavirus pandemic rapidly forced campus closures. Federal officials changed course on Monday, saying that international students in the U.S. enrolled in online-only programs “must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status or potentially face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”

The new rule stipulates that international students enrolled in U.S. programs but living abroad may take an online-only course load; however, they will not be allowed to enter the country. International students on visas attending U.S. schools that take a hybrid approach—with some in-person and some online instruction—must be on campus and can not take all classes online from afar.

Higher ed stakeholders condemn the change

Pushback against the new guideline was swift. “Our University strongly opposes this reckless action,” Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia wrote in a message. “It creates new and unnecessary barriers for international students and puts their health, stability, and academic progress at risk if they are unable to participate in classes in-person. The new requirements fail to recognize the invaluable contributions of our international students within our community and the impacts of this abrupt change during an ongoing pandemic.”

Georgetown, DeGioia said, is working to limit, and if possible prevent, the negative impact of the rule on the university’s international students. Georgetown is joining a number of colleges and universities in submitting an amicus brief in federal court opposing the guidance. In addition, the university is working with faculty and academic staff across programs that are planning to implement hybrid-flexible approaches to instruction to try to include sufficient in-person components in fall programs to satisfy visa requirements for international students, should the new guidance stand. “It has never been more urgent or more important for us to sustain and advance the global character of our University, and we will work to uphold and honor that responsibility today,” he wrote.

Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California, meanwhile, filed lawsuits this week seeking to block the directive. The rule, Harvard and MIT’s lawsuit asserts, has left colleges and universities facing “the untenable situation of either moving forward with their carefully calibrated, thoughtful, and difficult decisions to proceed with their curricula fully or largely online in the fall of 2020 … or to attempt, with just weeks before classes resume, to provide in-person education despite the grave risk to public health and safety that such a change would entail.” More colleges are expected to speak out against the rule.

“It’s just mean-spirited,” Allen Orr, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told Inside Higher Ed. “The political intent cannot be clearer,” said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, of which Georgetown President DeGioia is a founding member. “They want to force campuses into the position they have to declare themselves open, or at least in a hybrid model.” 

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