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CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS - MARCH 23: A runner crosses Harvard Yard on March 23, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Students were required to be out of their dorms no later than March 15 and finish the rest of the semester online due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

International students may need to leave US if their universities transition to online-only learning

International students who are pursuing degrees in the United States will have to leave the country or risk deportation if their universities switch to online-only courses, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Monday.

The move may affect thousands of foreign students who come to the United States to attend universities or participate in training programs, as well as non-academic or vocational studies.

Universities nationwide are beginning to make the decision to transition to online courses as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. At Harvard, for example, all course instruction will be delivered online, including for students living on campus. For international students, that opens the door to them having to leave the US.

“There’s so much uncertainty. It’s very frustrating,” said Valeria Mendiola, 26, a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “If I have to go back to Mexico, I am able to go back, but many international students just can’t.”

In a news release Monday, ICE said that students who fall under certain visas “may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States,” adding, “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 agency suggested that students currently enrolled in the US consider other measures, like transferring to schools with in-person instruction. There’s an exception for universities using a hybrid model, such as a mix of online and in-person classes.

Visa requirements for students have always been strict and coming to the US to take online-only courses has been prohibited.

“These are not some fly-by-night universities, these aren’t scams, these are legit universities who would normally have in-person curricula but for coronavirus,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“The bigger issue is some of these countries have travel restrictions on and they can’t go home, so what do they do then?” she added. “It’s a conundrum for a lot of students.”

The Trump administration has made a litany of changes to the US immigration system, citing the coronavirus pandemic, that have resulted in barring swaths of immigrants from coming to the country.

Last month, the White House issued an immigration proclamation dramatically curtailing legal immigration to the US sending hundreds of people and businesses into a scramble to understand whether their future plans are derailed.

In the proclamation, the administration argued that the “extraordinary circumstances” posed by coronavirus called for the suspension of employment-based visas. But immigrant advocates, industries and experts say the administration is taking advantage of the pandemic to make sweeping immigration changes and advance its agenda to slash legal immigration.

Monday’s announcement, like the changes that preceded it, could similarly result in many foreign students who often pay high tuition to have to return to their home country.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, DC, about 1.2 million students who fall under the affected visas were enrolled and registered at more than 8,700 schools nationwide as of March 2018.

While students might have the option to transfer to a college or university offering in-person courses, it might be difficult to come by amid continued concerns over coronavirus. Some schools have announced plans to bring students back but shorten semesters, as well as cancel nearly all in-person classes through the semester.

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