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US immigration confirms new international students cannot enter the US for “100% online” studies

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • After a turbulent month of policy making, US immigration authorities have confirmed that new international students will not be permitted to enter the US if their programme of study has fully transitioned to online delivery

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began the month of July by announcing new guidance that would have effectively barred international students from entering or remaining in the US if their programme of study transitioned to online delivery.

In a dramatic reversal, that rule was rescinded by the US government on 14 July, in the face of a number of lawsuits and widespread criticism of the online ban by US institutions, education associations, and state governments.

At the time, ICE indicated that it would continue under its previous guidance from March 2020 – an earlier directive that sets out exemptions to allow international students to maintain their visa status in the US while studying online.

Reports began to circulate last week that ICE had advised some US institutions that, while the March 2020 rules would be applied to continuing students, they would not apply to new students — that is, to those planning to begin studies this year. In other words, the ban on online-only studies would still apply, but only for new students.

On 24 July, ICE confirmed these reports with a public statement that affirmed the department’s guidance from March. Specifically, that continuing students can preserve their visa status in the US even if they are forced to study online because of the pandemic.

ICE added as well that it would, “not issue a temporary final rule impacting nonimmigrant students for the fall school term.” This appeared to put an end to speculation that the US administration may introduce additional rules for the fall semester that could have impacted the visa status of international students in the United States.

At the same time, however, the ICE statement confirms that foreign students planning to begin studies in fall 2020 will not be permitted to enter the US if their programmes have transitioned to online study.

“In accordance with March 2020 guidance, nonimmigrant students in new or initial status after 9 March will not be able to enter the US to enroll in a US school as a nonimmigrant student for the fall term to pursue a full course of study that is 100% online.”

“Additionally,” the announcement continues, “designated school officials should not issue a Form I-20 to a nonimmigrant student in new or initial status who is outside of the US and plans to take classes at an SEVP-certified educational institution fully online.”

This latest directive will be disappointing to US educators and other groups working to support international students in the US. But some have pointed out that the emphasis on prohibiting studies that are “100% online” may yet leave room for new students to enter the country for hybrid programmes that combine remote and in-person instruction.

Speaking for the American Council on Education (ACE), Brad Farnsworth, vice president for global engagement, said, “While the association is disappointed that there is inconsistency between the treatment for existing students who are in the United States who will be allowed to enroll in fully online institutions and the treatment of new students, it is nonetheless pleased to see the flexibility for hybrid learning options.”

“We still have questions,” added Mr Farnsworth. “And we’re keeping our options open as to how to respond.”

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