AUSTIN (Nexstar) — As universities determine what fall programs will look like, a new factor in the equation is whether international students will remain enrolled.
The federal government announced new rules Monday that could force some college students studying in the states to leave the country. The rules affect international students with F-1 or M-1 visas. If their schools only offer online classes during the pandemic, the students can’t stay in the United States.
International students “attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States,” the announcement stated.
“I’m not sure how the next semester will look,” Isabel Campos, a Mexican-born law student in the U.S. on an F-1 visa, said. “I’m not sure if I’m going to be in the U.S.”
Campos completed her undergrad at UT Austin, and plans to attend St. Mary’s University in San Antonio for law school next month. Though this week’s update to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement leaves her in limbo, depending on whether her fall courses include an in-person option.
Plus, she’s concerned about contracting, and possibly spreading, COVID-19.
“International students are facing the decision either taking in-person classes and risking your life or being deported from the U.S.,” Campos said.
According to the announcement, in addition to the the State Department not issuing visas to students in programs that are fully online, Customs and Border Protection will not permit these students to enter the country.
Foreign students are allowed a combination of online and in-person classes, but each university has to certify that with the federal government.
A St. Mary’s spokesperson said the university is working with its nearly 200 international students to “ensure that they are able to continue their studies.”
Other universities have responded similarly. A statement from the University of Texas at Austin called international students a “vital and valued part of the academic community,” and indicated that the university continues to “advise all F-1 students to enroll in classes designated as in-person or web-enhanced.”
At the University of Texas at El Paso, which is expecting more than 1,400 international students in the fall, the university plans to work with each student “so that they can start or continue progress toward earning their degree.”
At Texas Tech, university leadership at the Office of International Affairs wrote a letter to students Tuesday which stated in part that administrators planned to monitor the situation and adapt to any changes.
“As long as international students are not registered for an online-only degree program and are not taking an entirely online course load for Fall 2020, they will be able to meet the requirements of this Temporary Final Rule and we will be able to maintain appropriate student records,” the Texas Tech letter stated in part.
Multiple spokespeople from Texas A&M University said they were working on releasing a statement.
According to the government press release, international students 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.”
“As most people know, for transferring you have to apply in December or in March, so that’s not even an option,” Campos responded.
She worries about having to make important decisions about her future with little time to weigh the options.
“As an international student, you plan to live in the U.S. for the amount of your program, so if it’s a four-year program, you’re gonna plan for four years, if it’s a three-year program, same thing,” she said.
“You rent an apartment, you buy furniture, because it’s four years of your life, I mean, you buy a car, and classes start in less than a month,” she explained. “They’re asking international students to get rid of their leases at some of their apartments, or their furniture or put them in storage…so much stress added to an already difficult time.”
Immigration attorney, Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch said she expected a legal battle in the court system. Harvard and MIT filed a lawsuit Wednesday morning challenging Monday’s announcement.
“These students are completely up in the air right now,” Lincoln-Goldfinch said. “These universities are going to lose their online students, they’re going to suffer even more.”
“The typical trajectory of a foreign student, is they study on their F-1 visa, they graduate, they get work permission, they work through a U.S. employer, and then if they’re awesome that us employer petitions for them to stay and get their green card,” she explained. “And this is a this is a really rich opportunity for us companies to hire bright foreign students who have trained in the United States.”