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ICE Says Students on Visas Must Leave U.S. If Schools Transition to Online-Only

Students and pedestrians walk through the Yard at Harvard University after the school asked its students not to return to campus after Spring Break and said it would move to virtual instruction for graduate and undergraduate classes in Cambridge, Mass., March 10, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Monday that foreign students whose schools transition to online classes only in the fall must leave the U.S. to avoid violating their visa status.

“The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States,” announced the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which is run by ICE.

“Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status,” ICE continued in the statement. “If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings. ”

The U.S. had revised visa rules temporarily earlier this year to allow foreign nationals to remain in the country as they completed their spring and summer courses after the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to transition to online classes.

Students who enroll in at least some in-person classes during the fall semester will be allowed to stay in the U.S. as usual. Monday’s rule announcement for online courses applies to students with F-1 and M-1 nonimmigrant visas, which are granted to those taking academic and vocational courses.

The move received pushback from organizations representing higher-education institutions, including the Association of American Universities, with some noting that international students are also a boon for the U.S., contributing $45 billion to the economy in 2018, according to the Department of Commerce. University officials are scrambling to figure out how to handle the rule change.

Universities are required to certify by July 15 whether they will offer some in-person classes or operate on an online-only basis.

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