Online only courses could force F1 visa students out of US

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ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Agents inspect international cargo during COVID-19 22 May 2020

US Government / Public Domain

Comments by Sanwar Ali:

This does seem somewhat surprising.  If you are encouraging more students to attend classes at University then presumably you are more likely to spread coronavirus COVID-19.  Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security DHS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement ICE.  This is an attempt to halt a proposed federal policy that could mean international F1 visa students having to leave the US.

ICE introduced this new rule only a few hours after Harvard released its new guidance on going fully remote. 

Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow had the following to say:

“The order came down without notice—its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness.”

“We believe that the ICE order is bad public policy, and we believe that it is illegal.”

As both Obama and Trump have found immigration related litigation could continue for years delaying or stopping certain immigration policies.  It is also uncertain whether Trump will win the US Presidential elections in November this year.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will revoke F1 and M1 visas for international students whose courses move fully online amid the coronavirus pandemic. ICE’s announcement has sparked anger among politicians and academics. Due to COVID-19, many US universities had planned online teaching schedules for the new academic year.

However, international students in the US on an F1 or M1 student visa now face deportation unless they switch to an educational institution offering in-person tuition.

At this stage, it’s unclear how many will be affected by the measure.

Student and Exchange Visitor Programme

A temporary exemption was in place for the Student and Exchange Visitor Programme (SEVP), operated by ICE, allowing foreign students whose courses had shifted online for the spring and summer semesters, to stay in the US.

However, it’s understood that the exemption will not be carried over into the new academic year. This leaves many F1 and M1 visa students in fear of their immigration status if they’re unable to switch to an institution offering in-person teaching.

Harvard courses moved online

ICE’s announcement comes after the USA’s oldest university, Harvard, said all of its courses would be moved online for the upcoming academic year – including for the few students that live on campus.

9% of US universities plan to deliver their courses online during the autumn, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. However, this is subject to change during the coming months.

Larry Bacow, the president of Harvard University, said: “We are deeply concerned that the guidance issued today by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement imposes a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem, giving international students, particularly those in online programmes, few options beyond leaving the country or transferring schools.”

Bacow argues that ICE’s plans undermine the ability of US universities, including Harvard, to deliver academic programmes while ensuring the health and safety of students and staff.

Cruel and xenophobic

Democratic Senator, Elizabeth Warren, blasted ICE’s decision, saying: “Kicking international students out of the US during a global pandemic because their colleges are moving classes online for physical distancing hurts students. It’s senseless, cruel, and xenophobic.”

Former US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, echoed Warren’s comments saying: “The decision makes no sense. It’s completely unworkable for most college students.”

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Spiers – a journalist who teaches at New York University – said many of her students were reliant on US visas and would be unable to follow an online teaching programme because of time zone differences between the US and their home country, plus other considerations.

Harvard student Noah Furlonge-Walker, 20, from Trinidad told the BBC that he had been looking forward to starting his second year at the world-famous university, then he heard about ICE’s decision.

He returned to Trinidad in March when the nearly 400-year-old Ivy League university said that all courses would take place online for the remainder of the academic year.

Mr Furlonge-Walker said: “I can’t make sense of or rationalise the decision. At a time like this, when everyone is trying to get back on their feet and get back to normal, why would they do something that jeopardises everyone?”

Who will be affected?

According to an ICE statement, the rule will apply to specific types of US visa issued for academic study.

This could mean that as many as 373,000 people will be affected, with government figures showing that this is the number of US study visas issued in 2019.

The Institute of International Education said: “The US had more than one million international students doing various graduate and undergraduate programmes in 2018-19. That’s about 5.5% of the total student community in the country.”

Of these, nearly three quarters came to study in the US from Asia – 48% being Chinese nationals and 26% Indian.

The IIE said: “According to US Department of Commerce data, international students contributed $45 billion to the country’s economy.”

F1 OPT scheme blasted by USCIS ombudsman

ICE’s announcement follows a recent controversial report from the USCIS ombudsman, which criticizes the F1 Optional Practical Training (OPT) scheme. The ombudsman claimed that the OPT program is highly susceptible to fraud and manipulated by foreign governments in order to access and steal US trade secrets for their own use.  However, huge numbers of companies and students have benefited from OPT.

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