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ICE Threatens to Deport Foreign Students if They’re Attending School via Zoom

Like other schools, colleges and universities are in the midst of finalizing their plans for how to educate students while protecting them from the novel coronavirus. Will they remain online only, invite all students back to campus, or provide a hybrid of the two approaches so that fewer students will crowd together in buildings? U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) just complicated matters for the many schools with foreign students enrolled.

Back when all campuses shut down in the spring, ICE temporarily suspended a rule for type F-1 (academic coursework) and M-1 (vocational coursework) nonimmigrant student visas that had previously limited the number of online classes students could take. On Monday, instead of simply extending that suspension, the agency announced that in order to stay in the U.S., students can take some but not all their courses online. If their school goes online-only, they’ve got to pack their bags.

“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,” an ICE press release reads. “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. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”

There are so many consequences to a policy like this, and none of them are pleasant.

According to the Brookings Institute, in most states, nonimmigrant foreign students account for more than 5 percent of student enrollment in undergraduate institutions — and those numbers are much higher in California, New York, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. These students typically pay full tuition, to the annual tune of $2.5 billion. So, on a very basic level, this rule could deprive schools of a lot of much-needed money right now. Less cash from foreign students means less scholarship money for American students in need.

Schools don’t just want foreign students for their money. Having an international student body, with perspectives of people from all corners of the world, enriches the education of all who attend. Schools that want to maintain that atmosphere and that tuition money are going to have to offer in-person classes in the fall. That’s regardless of the fact that it may not be safe for students, and even less safe for professors who are older or have other underlying conditions that put them at risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

We’re leaving the worst for last: This is awful news for students who just want to get a quality education in this country. Even with online classes, that’s not going to be easy for many going back to home countries with unreliable internet, inconvenient time zones, or lack of access to apps restricted in some locations.

Will students ultimately decide to transfer to U.S. schools that have in person classes, even if there’s a risk to their health? Will they instead choose to go to schools in countries that haven’t become completely hostile to immigrants?

One ray of hope: Experts think the rule will face legal challenges right away.

“[T]his is almost certainly going to be challenged in court. I can’t give anyone specific legal advice on their cases (especially because I am not an expert on student visas), but I wouldn’t encourage anyone to book a flight ‘home’ this exact moment,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, an attorney at the American Immigration Council, wrote on Twitter. “Lawsuits are inevitable.”

Can you believe we’re thinking about going back to school already? Whether your kids are going to a classroom or not, these school supplies make learning fun.

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