New federal rule jeopardizes international students’ ability to study in the United States

University of Florida
University of Florida campus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

International students at colleges and universities across the nation will face a major challenge this fall semester amid the COVID-19 pandemic:

Find schools that are operating under normal in-person classes or leave the United States if they prefer to attend classes fully online.

New federal regulations, released by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Monday, impose that choice by requiring that international students take formal classes “to remain in lawful status.”

“If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings,” ICE said in announcing the policy.

“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.”

The new federal regulations come as students prepare to return to college campuses in Florida and elsewhere in the fall, with numerous safety measures in place in response to COVID-19. The federal law is directed to non-immigrant F-1 and M-1 students enrolled in academic and technical programs.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, protested Monday on Twitter:

“Some of our students have home countries that have no WiFi, no infrastructure for online learning — for them, learning online outside of USA may not even be possible. Time zones could also dramatically impact their ability to learn, #COVID19 rates could be really bad, etc.”

The State University System of Florida’s admission regulations require international students “to follow the laws and regulations set by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services of the United States Department of Homeland Security and the United States Department of State.”

Florida’s public universities enroll “over 30,000 international students from more than 200 different countries,” according to the university system.

At the University of Florida in Gainesville alone, more than 6,000 international students enroll every year, admissions data show.

According to ICE, international students can maintain residency in the country by taking “alternative steps to maintain their non-immigrant status such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave.”