WASHINGTON: The United States will not allow the entry of new international students for the upcoming fall semester if their courses are entirely online, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said on Friday.
In a release, the ICE said "F and M students in new or initial status after March 9, 2020 will not be able to enter the United States to enroll in a U.S. school as a nonimmigrant student for the fall term to pursue a full course of study that is 100 percent online."
It also said school officials should not issue a Form I-20, "Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status," to a nonimmigrant student in new or initial status who is outside of the United States and plans to take classes at an certified educational institution fully online.
A guidance issued on March 9 by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which the ICE uses to manage foreign students and exchange visitors in the United States, has allowed schools and students to engage in distance learning in excess of regulatory limits due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The ICE said on Friday that the guidance applies to continuing F and M nonimmigrant students who were in valid F-1 or M-1 nonimmigrant status on March 9, including those previously enrolled in entirely online classes who are outside of the United States and seeking to re-enter the country this fall.
"Students actively enrolled at a U.S. school on March 9, 2020, who subsequently took courses online while outside of the country can re-enter the United States, even if their school is engaged solely in distance learning," it added.
The announcement came less than two weeks after the ICE rescinded a new directive that could have barred international students from the United States if they only attend online courses in this year's fall semester.
The directive, which came in early July when the White House was pushing for the reopening of schools despite the pandemic, had faced strong backlash from both home and abroad as well as lawsuits supported by more than 200 U.S. universities and 18 states.
Many universities in the United States, where the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge, have announced plans to hold most or all classes online this fall in order to protect the health and safety of their students and faculty.
More than 4.1 million people in the United States have infected with the coronavirus and some 145,000 of them have died, according to the latest tally from Johns Hopkins University. In some populous states, daily rates of new cases and hospitalizations are still rising.
Rakesh Khurana, Danoff Dean of Harvard College, said in a letter to students that "any incoming student who received a Form I-20 to begin their studies this fall will be unable to enter the U.S. in F-1 status as course instruction is fully remote."
"We abhor any policies that seek to force us to choose between our community's health and the education of our international students," Khurana wrote. "The University is working closely with members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation to extend the online exemption to newly admitted students and ensure that this flexibility remains in place for the duration of the public health emergency."
"Unfortunately, we don't anticipate any change to the policy in time for the fall semester," he added.
Denis Wirtz, vice provost for research at Johns Hopkins University, said on Friday that they are "working on solutions for our first-year grad international students."
"Remember, students in their second year of study and beyond are out of the woods," Wirtz tweeted, adding that Hopkins will now work hard to make it work for these first-year students as well.
According to a report by the National Foundation for American Policy, international student enrollment in the United States is expected to decline sharply this year due to the pandemic.
"The enrollment of new international students at U.S. universities in the Fall 2020/21 academic year is projected to decline 63% to 98% from the 2018/19 level, with between 6,000 to 12,000 new international students at the low range, and 87,000 to 100,000 at the high range," the report said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, a civil rights and civil liberties organization, on Friday urged U.S. lawmakers to investigate the ICE's policy.
"Once again, this administration is exploiting the pandemic to target immigrant youth," it tweeted. "This policy will disrupt the lives of hundreds of thousands of students."