Trump administration prohibits entry to new foreign students pursuing online courses

Less than two weeks after the Donald Trump administration rescinded a controversial rule that would have required foreign students pursuing online courses to leave the US, the saga of ‘remote only’ learning has taken another twist.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that runs the student and exchange visitor’s visa programme on Friday said, newly enrolled international students, many of them from India, would not be allowed to enter the United States (US) if their courses were to be taught online in the upcoming fall semester. The fall semester starts in September.

It directed authorised universities to not issue Form 1-20s to newly enrolled students if their classes were to be online only. These documents are required by international students to apply for the student visa.

The updated guidance was listed in a frequently asked questions guidance broadcast issued by ICE. The guidance states “new or initial non-immigrant students who intend to pursue a full course of study that will be conducted completely online will likely not be able to obtain an F-1 or M-1 visa to study in the United States”. F-1 visas are for students planning to pursue academic courses and M-1 visas for those seeking vocational courses.

The updated rule does not apply to students already having visas and pursuing online courses in the US.

“Traditionally—when there’s not a pandemic—international students have been barred from taking more than one online course each semester. ICE allowed foreign students to stay in the US when classes went online in March but have feuded with universities about what to do about students now that colleges are again going online this fall, as the pandemic persists,” USA Today reported.

To stay in the US, these foreign students would have had to ensure a majority of their courses were conducted in-person and if their institution did not offer that, transfer to one that did.

March 9, the cut-off date, is when ICE issued guidelines allowing non-immigrant foreign students to continue to stay in the country and pursue their classes online, wholly, as required by the universities, making an exception in view of coronavirus disease (Covid-19) from a rule under which foreigners are not issued student visas for online-only classes.

According to Open Doors, a standard resource on international students, there were nearly 270,000 new foreign students enrolled in graduate, under-graduate and non-degree courses for the academic session starting 2019 fall.

The number of foreign students impacted by this order could not be ascertained immediately.

India is the second-largest source of foreign students in the US, with around 200,000, of an estimated 1 million in all.

This new order came just days after the Donald Trump administration rescinded a controversial order that would have led to the deportation of non-immigrant international students if their courses were being held fully online in the fall semester, a preventative measure adopted by many institutions as they reopen after a prolonged COVID-19-enforced break.

The universities are being extra vigilant, as the US is reporting a second surge in Covid-19 cases and fatalities.

The new rule is expected to spark another round of feuding between universities and the Trump administration as the fall semester nears. When ICE had announced a new rule barring entry to all students pursuing online courses, universities such as Harvard and MIT had sued the government, following which it changed course.

Harvard University, for instance, has declared its fall classes will be all online. It is not even allowing all its students to return to their on-campus accommodations.

Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had challenged that earlier order in a lawsuit that was eventually joined by over 200 universities.

Interestingly, despite the rule change, media reports claim foreign students were finding it difficult to enter the US. The Voice of America reported on Friday that students in many countries were finding it difficult to enter the US due to confusion on the issue of online courses and also the continued disruption of US consular services due to the COVID-19 situation.

Citing Department of Commerce figures, the institute said international students of whom there are about 1.1 million in the US, contributed approximately $45 billion to the US economy in 2018.

Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator, and former presidential candidate had weighed in with a stinging denunciation. It is “dangerous & xenophobic”, she had written in a tweet and had gone on to compare the order to the travel ban the president had ordered targeting people from certain countries, called the “Muslim travel ban”.

The Trump administration told a Boston court at the first oral arguments in the case it was rescinding the order.

However, the administration is not done with foreign students evidently. It is understood to be considering suspending OPT (Optional Practical Training), a temporary post-graduation work authorisation foreign students use as a stepping-stone to H-1B visa, and, eventually, Green Cards and citizenship.

Rather than adding yet another stressor to the economy, the administration ought to do the humane thing and extend the exemption for as long as the coronavirus is forcing such radical changes in how colleges educate students.

Image Credits: Fox Bussiness

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