New Visa Rules for International Students

August 5, 2020

In addition to record numbers of casualties, the current COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted daily lives and caused widespread uncertainty. As the fall season approaches, educators at all levels must make decisions about whether to offer in-person classes. Many health experts are recommending a completely virtual approach to prevent a surge in cases, but this approach may have unintended consequences for international students. A series of announcements from the Trump administration in July has students concerned about their future.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a new immigration rule on July 6 that would revoke visas for international students not enrolled in physical classes. The policy stated that students who are in the country on a F-1 or M-1 non-immigrant visa must be attending classes, and that those participating in online programs will be forced to either return to their home country or transfer to an in-person program if they wish to remain in the United States. Additionally, if campuses were forced to close and classes moved online due to a surge in cases, students would either have to take extraordinary measures to stay in the country or leave until in-person classes resume.

Lawsuits Force Policy Reversal

The policy received immediate backlash from universities, education organizations, and companies. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) immediately filed lawsuits against the policy, with other universities voicing their support. The new rule also received criticism from numerous tech companies, including Google and Facebook, citing the potential business implications of forcing talented students to leave the country. Before the case went before a judge, the administration announced that it was rescinding the policy. University leaders were pleased with the decision but stated that they were prepared to mobilize again, if needed, to protect their international students.

The new rule would have been a stark contradiction to the Trump administration’s policy during the spring semester. Normally, students on a F-1 or M-1 visa would be required to take mostly in-person courses. When schools were forced to close in March due to the pandemic, however, many were able to move their classes entirely online. For the remainder of the spring semester, students were permitted to stay in the country while taking online courses and were even allowed to take on additional courses. Students were expecting this policy to be extended into the fall semester but received different news.

Difficulties for International Students Taking Classes Online

In an interview with CNN, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security revealed the reasoning behind the rule, stating that international students have no reason to be in the country if they are not taking in-person classes. He argued that if classes were entirely online, students could take them anywhere. This reasoning fails to take into account numerous practical concerns with forcing students out of the country. Students on F-1 or M-1 visas may have to leave behind families in the U.S. and return to countries that are not familiar to them or under oppressive leadership. They may not have access to the technology they need, and differences in time zones may prohibit them from attending online classes.

The policy also raised questions for graduate and doctoral students whose programs may not include traditional in-person courses. Many graduate programs, particularly those in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, have a rigorous research component, and students often spend entire terms in the lab. Students earning their PhD may still be in the process of writing or defending their dissertation. Graduate and postdoctoral students may need to remain on campus to receive stipends or apply for internships in the U.S.

If the rule had gone into effect, it would have had a substantial impact on universities and the job market. Each year, U.S. colleges and universities enroll about one million students each year. These students pay for tuition and housing, as well as other living expenses in their communities. It is estimated that international students contribute $41 billion to the U.S. economy each year, and for every seven international students, three jobs are created to support them, translating to hundreds of thousands of positions. Once they graduate, international students then enter the U.S. job market, providing valuable talent to American companies.

Other Administration Policies Raise Concerns

The announcement, and immediate reversal, caused confusion and concern for students who have been in the country for years pursuing their education. International students have experienced a moment of relief, but the Trump administration has not been shy about their anti-immigration stance. Recently, they have been taking steps to limit entry into the country on work visas, and they halted processing green cards for international applicants. They are also denying asylum seekers along the country’s southwestern border, allowing only citizens and legal residents to enter. If ICE decides to make further changes to their policy on student visas, many students do not have the resources to fight this rule alone.

Vineland Immigration Lawyers at the MC Law Group, LLC Provide Comprehensive Representation for International Students

The Vineland immigration lawyers at the MC Law Group, LLC are here to help students with any visa and immigration issues they may be facing, including those related to the current pandemic. We have the knowledge and resources to help students navigate changing immigration policies and will fight tirelessly to protect their rights. Located in Philadelphia, we represent clients throughout the tri-state area, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and nationwide. Call us today at 215-496-0690 or contact us online for a free consultation.