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On Monday, July 6, 2020, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced modifications to its previously issued exemptions for foreign students taking online classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Generally, foreign students cannot solely take online classes and maintain student visa status.  Rather, they are required to participate in in-person learning. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, international students, and the U.S. schools that educate them, had been given a reprieve by the U.S. government, and those students had been permitted to take all online classes for the spring and summer semesters. This all changed without broad public discussion and without allowing universities to be able to weigh-in, in an official manner.

Pursuant to the announcement, F-1 and M-1 international students will no longer have an exemption to take fully online courses and maintain their student visa status. They will be required to limit their online classes to one class or three credit hours in order to maintain their student status and remain in the United States. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is expected to publish the procedures and responsibilities in the Federal Register soon.

The government’s announcement on Monday provided no explanation why the prior policy of exempting international students from in-class requirements was being rescinded for the fall 2020 semester. 

Recent immigration policies announced by the White House have provided justifications based primarily on protecting the U.S. workforce and U.S. workers in this time of high unemployment because of the COVID-19 pandemic The announcement did not address why this new action was justified, since the COVID-19 pandemic is still progressing and continuing to cause financial and other challenges for universities and the broader economy.

International students who are engaged in a full-time course of study, as well as their spouses and children, are generally not authorized to work in the United States, with few exceptions. They must attend classes on a full-time basis, pay tuition rates that are substantially higher than those paid by U.S. students, and must maintain satisfactory academic progress to maintain their immigration status. 

Professors and other college and university employees depend on international students for their jobs and livelihood. There are over one million international students enrolled in colleges and universities, according to the Institute of International Education.  Those students pay double or triple the amount of tuition that U.S. students pay for the same education, and are very often not eligible for scholarships. They are an important factor in financing the education of U.S. students. 

International students also benefit the economies of the places where they live by renting or buying real estate and otherwise contributing to local businesses by virtue of living in the United States. In fact, before international students can obtain student visas, they must clearly demonstrate to the U.S. government that they have the financial ability to support themselves in the United States without working.

This new policy – if allowed to take effect – will detrimentally affect colleges and universities that are already struggling due to COVID-19. It will also hurt the professors and staff that teach and work at these institutions, owners of real estate who depend on foreign students to rent housing, and local businesses that are patronized by international students. 

According to a March 2020 report by NAFSA (Association of International Educators), international students contributed nearly $41 billion to the U.S. economy in 2019. That same report confirms that international student enrollment has decreased by 10% since 2017. The forced departure of potentially hundreds of thousands of international students will devastate the schools they currently, or plan to, attend and the communities in those areas.

In addition, it is inevitable that forcing schools to reopen for in-person education in order to avoid losing international students will place the schools, students, professors, and workers at the schools at a higher and unnecessary risk of contracting COVID-19.  Schools are being forced to choose between the health and safety of their faculty, staff, and students and their ability to financially survive and continue to educate students.

This policy will also send the global best and brightest, who often choose U.S. schools, to institutions of higher education in other countries, and our nation will lose out on those students who could use their talents to benefit the U.S.

From the students’ perspective, it’s not as simple as this policy may appear either. The selection of what school to attend is not something that international students undertake lightly.  When a foreign student is accepted into an Ivy League school, for example, the student should not be forced to change to another school based solely on his ability to remain in the U.S. to continue his education. The announcement only gives schools and students about 60 days to make dramatic, and possibly life-changing, decisions based on a policy put in place without justification or reason.

The administration has publicly commented that international students who wish to continue to study but have to do so from their home countries are somehow being favored by this policy because they can continue their educations online.  However, international students often hail from countries in time zones that are 10 or 12 hours ahead or behind their U.S. schools. This would make online studies virtually impossible, as the student would have to attend online classes between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m.  They would also be unable to participate in activities that are vital to them and the institutions they attend, such as labs and research projects that require personal collaboration with faculty and other students.

If schools reopen campuses for in-class learning and decide at some point during the fall 2020 semester that they must discontinue in-person classes due to a rise in COVID-19 infections or other such possible effects of reopening under pressure, international students would be forced to change schools immediately or depart the United States.

On Wednesday, July 8, 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were sued before the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts by Harvard University and MIT for this announced policy. The case is scheduled for hearing before Judge Allison D. Burroughs on Tuesday, July 14, 2020 at 3 PM.

Our experienced team of immigration attorneys at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney will continue to closely monitor the law suit and are here to help schools and students who are in similar situations. We are also available to work with universities to help them express their  concerns to this administration.