US says foreign students must leave if classes go fully online

Foreign students at US universities and schools will no longer be eligible to stay in the country if their courses move fully online due to coronavirus, US immigration authorities said on Monday.

Students holding visas for either academic or vocational courses that have moved fully online should either depart the country or transfer to a school with in-person teaching to “remain in lawful status”, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement said, adding that a failure to do this could result in deportation proceedings.

The tightening of visa restrictions for foreign national students comes after the Trump administration suspended a range of different guest worker visas, affecting scientists, doctors, au pairs and some seasonal workers, among others. Mr Trump has also suspended green cards — which offer permanent residency — to respond to the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs as coronavirus damages the US economy.

Restrictions on travel and a blockage in the visa issuance process caused by the closure of consulates and embassies overseas have already hit non-US students hoping to study at American universities, with many unable to travel.

Colleges and universities across the US have been grappling with how to safely return students to campus amid worries that moving too quickly could spark a fresh wave of infections.

Earlier on Monday, several prominent universities announced they would try to teach academic subjects through online lectures and classes in the autumn term to avoid students gathering in person.

Harvard and Princeton universities said that they planned to reintroduce some students back to campus in the autumn, but many students would be offered online instruction. 

Rutgers University in New Jersey also revealed plans to keep most courses online with exceptions made for lab work and other instruction that would “benefit from direct access to campus facilities”.

Sharvari Dalal-Dheini of the American Immigration Lawyers Association said US immigration authorities had made the change “without any notice”, and “thrown these students’ lives into chaos and uncertainty”.

“As schools are still working out how the fall semester will unfold, this now forces individuals to leave the United States even if they are pursuing and paying for a US degree,” said Ms Dalal-Dheini. “Not only does this impact the students, but it will also adversely impact universities and colleges that rely on these foreign students for innovation and financial stability.”

Ted Mitchell, the president of the American Council on Education, a membership organisation for US colleges and universities, said the immigration guidance for students was “horrifying”, and that more clarity was needed. 

“Iron-clad federal rules are not the answer at this time of great uncertainty,” said Mr Mitchell. “Imagine a student who starts in-person classes at a college that physically reopens. If the college decides it must shift to remote instruction midway through the fall, this guidance could force the institution to tell that student to leave the United States and face an impossible return to another country that has closed its borders.”

The Harvard graduate student workers union said they found the rule change “incredibly concerning” and vowed to fight any deportations. 

According to the Institute of International Education, there were nearly 1.1m international students in the US in the 2018-19 academic year, making up 5.5 per cent of the higher education population.