On July 6th, 2020, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced modifications to temporary exceptions for nonimmigrant students taking online classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic for the fall term of 2020. The SEVP, which sets all student visa regulations for student visas, is run by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
This spring and summer 2020, the SEVP allowed foreign students to take their courses online while remaining in the United States. Now, the U.S. The Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools or programs that are fully online for the fall semester. Additionally, the Customs and Border Protection will not allow such students to enter the country if they are abroad. International students on F-1 and M-1 visas residing in the U.S. whose schools are planning on using online platforms for classes this fall 2020 must leave the country or take other measures, such as transferring to another institution with in-person options. If international students do not do so, they risk violating their visa status and may be removed from the country.
In its announcement on the ICE website, SEVP noted that foreign students who do not transfer to in-person programs and who remain in the U.S. while enrolled in online courses would face “immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”
Students taking in-person classes with F-1 nonimmigrant visas may remain in the country, but continue to be bound by existing federal regulations. Eligible F students may only take one class or three credit hours online.
Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools with a hybrid model (a mixture of online and in-person classes) can take more than one class or three credit hours. Such students must have valid certification from their universities that their programs are not entirely online. Such institutions must certify to SEVP with Form I-20 “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status” to prove that their program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load during the fall semester of 2020, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online courses required for their degree program.
Finally, students in English language courses and nonimmigrant M-1 visa students with vocational degrees may not take online courses.
If an international student begins his or her fall semester with in-person classes but is later required to switch to online classes (which could happen if the university’s policy changes due to changes in the COVID-19 pandemic), he or she must update their information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) within 10 days of the change. Likewise, if the student changes his or her course selections so that all courses are taken online, this change must be noted in the SEVIS as well.
Note that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will publish procedures and responsibilities in the Federal Register as a Temporary Final Rule.
This change will result in the U.S. losing many thousands of students because of this regulation, which will negatively impact international perception of the United States. Today, the U.S. has over a million international students studying at universities and vocational institutions. Many educational institutions have already announced that they will adopt a fully-online program for the upcoming fall 2020 semester to support containment of the pandemic.
This new change comes during an unpredictable time during which the Trump Administration has already expanded restrictions on immigration, citing the pandemic as a valid justification. Like previous visa bans, this new restriction will lead to USCIS suffering financially, as fewer visa application fees will be deposited into the institution’s hands.
It is very likely that talented international students who are forced to leave will feel resentful towards the U.S., lessening the chance of them returning as a student, as a visitor, or as an employee in the future. This will hurt American industry innovation and productivity, since foreign workers have always added a profound richness to this country.