On July 7, the U.S. government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) announced that students on F-1 and M-1 visas in US universities could be deported if their colleges offer only online classes in the fall semester because of the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. State Department will also not issue any visas to students enrolled for online-only courses in the fall semester and the US Customs and Border Protection agency will not permit these students to enter the United States.
The order, which follows US President Donald Trump’s restrictions on H-1B, H-4, H-2B and other visa categories, will have a significant impact on Indian students pursuing their degrees in the country. Indians make up over 18% of international students and are the second highest immigrant student population in the US.
“Anyone who falls short of these requirements will be at risk of being put into removal proceedings—that is what this announcement says,” said Poorvi Chothani, founder and managing partner of LawQuest, a global immigration law firm. “To the students, I would say be vigilant and carefully monitor your courses and every hour that you are spending on an online course. Every credit and every half credit will matter. And lastly, whatever you do, do it in conjunction with the DSO (designated school official ) because if you make a mistake then you can at least show that there is correspondence and record of meetings with the DSO.”
Chothani spoke to HuffPost India about the impact of this new rule on Indian students in the US on F-1 status.
Who will be impacted by this?
This will impact students on F1 pursuing a full course load online in the fall 2020 semester. In March, when COVID-19 happened, most universities completely went online and administered the course and exams online. This was permitted by the SEVP (Student and Exchange Visitor Programme) that granted students under F and M status provision that they could complete their spring and summer semester online fully.
Now, they have reinstated their original policy where students can take only one course or up to three credit hours per semester online and provided another hybrid process. In the hybrid model, a student can take a combination of physical classes and online classes. If the university is providing this option, students may take more than one online course. However, the SEVP has not determined how many classes can be taken online.
How many students will this rule potentially impact?
Over 200,000 students on F1 can be affected by this. Among these, while there are no numbers on how many students have flown back to India, anecdotally, I can tell you that almost everybody decided to come back saving a few. These students will not be able to re-enter the country if they are enrolled for online-only courses for Fall 2020 semester.
Does this also apply to students pursuing a PhD?
Absolutely yes, if they are on an F1 visa. There is no clarity whether the research work that most graduate students engage in is supposed to be online or on college premises. Even earlier in March, they had not clarified on the question of research when they gave the COVID concessions for spring and summer. I anticipate that they will just revert to what they were doing prior to COVID. It is unclear if the hybrid will apply to them and we will have to see when the detailed guidelines come out.
What is a full course load?
Graduate students must take 9 credit courses and undergraduate students must take 12 credit courses every semester or quarter as their full course load. Only one course or up to 3 credits can be online. Every university has the ability to submit to the SEVP online database and show what will constitute as a full-time course and what will not.
Will this impact those on the Curricular Practical Training (CPT) programme?
The ICE announcement does not contain anything particular with regard to CPT. I am not sure whether you have to still check in and take some classes while pursuing CPT under COVID, but I think whatever CPT physical classes students had to attend before the pandemic, they will have to attend now in view of the ICE announcement.
How will this affect those on Optional Practical Training (OPT)?
Those on OPT will not be impacted as OPT is a work training authorization. You are fine as long as you have an OPT job, are within the grace period for OPT or you are the beneficiary of a selected H-1B or approved H-1B that allows them to start working in October 1, 2020. They have a safety net even if their petition is not approved before September 30th, OPT students can remain in the United States post that date but cannot work until their H-1B is approved under the CAP gap provision.
How can universities pursue a hybrid model?
Every university has to declare on the SEVP all the courses they are offering, what would constitute a full credit course, what would it include and which of the courses are offered online. I believe that universities will quickly come out with more hybrid models and online courses, allowing for more students to remain compliant and in the U.S, if they don’t want to lose revenue. If universities worked to create courses and retain students within the United States they would pay money for housing, amenities, food, and tuition, thus generating revenue for the U.S.
Basically, they are going to have the students spending money and adhering with the immigration laws but give them a little flexibility online. However, this may not protect students from the dangers of COVID. The reason why universities stopped in-person classes was to stop the spread of the disease. However, that is gone if they have partial in-person classes and partial online classes. How are you going to protect the students? If you are going to class for one class or five classes, you are still exposed to COVID.
Can you pursue online classes outside the US if you have to depart the country?
Provided your universities are allowing that, you can pursue online classes outside of the US restrictions on the online study is only to get a visa. If you are studying from overseas you don’t need a visa. During the COVID period this summer and spring, the universities had allowed students to pursue their coursework from India. I don’t see why the universities would not permit this going forward, but we will have to wait and see how the universities tweak their programmes.
Will this impact your visa if you are already in India and cannot come back to finish your courses?
They have not said anything regarding the visa status in this announcement, but we will know soon as other agencies often come out with their guidelines soon after one agency comes out with their announcement. At present, anyone with a valid F1 visa cannot enter the United States if they are unable to show that they will be attending in-person classes or taking the hybrid classes. Whether these visas will be cancelled or not has not been clarified as of yet.
Additionally, if you take classes online outside the US in Fall 2020, you may need a new I20 to come back to the US. The SEVP guidelines now require the I20 to state what courses the students will be taking.
What happens if you are pursuing an internship in Fall 2020?
You will have to take the class unless you are registered for co-curricular OPT during fall and have an EAD (Employment Authorization Document) card. Then, you can continue the internship on your OPT.