In a decision that will adversely impact hundreds of thousands of Indian students in the United States, the federal immigration authority has announced that foreign students pursuing degrees in America will have to leave the country or risk deportation if their universities switch to online-only classes in this fall semester.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a press release on Monday that for the fall 2020 semester students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the US.
"The US Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programmes that are fully online for the fall semester nor will US Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States," the release said referring to the September to December semester.
The agency suggested that students currently enrolled in the US consider other measures, like transferring to schools with in-person instruction.
International students enrolled in academic programmes at US universities and colleges study on an F-1 visa and those enrolled in technical programmes at vocational or other recognised non-academic institutions, other than a language training programme come to the US on an M-1 visa.
India sent the largest number of students (2,51,290) to the US after China (4,78,732) in 2017 and 2018, according to the latest Student and Exchange Visitor Program 'SEVIS by the Numbers Report' 2018.
The number of students from India increased from 2017 to 2018 by 4,157.
The immigration agency said that the active students currently in the US enrolled in such programmes "must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status or potentially face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings".
It further said that students attending schools adopting a 'hybrid model', which includes a mixture of online and in-person classes, will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online.
These schools must certify to the Student and Exchange Visitor Programme that the course is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load for the fall 2020 semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree programme.
The guidance is certain to cause severe anxiety and uncertainty for the hundreds of thousands of international students who are studying in the country and for those who were preparing to arrive in the US to begin their education when the new academic session begins in September.
International travel restrictions in place due to the pandemic have made it increasingly difficult for foreign students in the US to return to their home countries, while those outside America are uncertain if they will be able to travel to join their courses in American colleges and universities.
The Trump administration has made a number of changes to the US immigration system, citing the coronavirus pandemic.
On June 22, it issued a proclamation, dramatically curtailing legal immigration to the US till December 31. Under this, people with L-1, H-1B, H-2B and J-1 visas were affected.
Reacting to the latest US move, Harvard University President Larry Bacow expressed deep concern and said the new guidance issued imposed a "blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem giving international students, particularly those in online programmes, few options beyond leaving the country or transferring schools."
The guidance "undermines the thoughtful approach taken on behalf of students by so many institutions, including Harvard, to plan for continuing academic programmes while balancing the health and safety challenges of the global pandemic."
"We will work closely with other colleges and universities around the country to chart a path forward," he said.
Before the ICE guidance was issued, Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences had said that it will bring up to 40 per cent of undergraduates to campus for the fall semester, including all first-year students.
Bacow, FAS Edgerley Family Dean Claudine Gay, and Danoff Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana co-authored a message to the FAS community that described the path forward, allowing first-years the opportunity to adjust to college academics and to begin creating connections with faculty and other classmates, while learning on campus in September.
It said the college will address gaps in students' home learning environments and identify those who need to return to campus to continue to progress academically. Students on campus will move out before Thanksgiving in November and complete reading and exams periods from home.
US Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted that "kicking international students out of the US during a global pandemic because their colleges are moving classes online for physical distancing hurts students. It's senseless, cruel, and xenophobic. @ICEgov and @DHSgov must drop this policy immediately".
New York-based immigration attorney Cyrus Mehta tweeted that "students who attend schools that operate completely online will not be allowed to receive F-1 visas or enter in F-1 status or maintain F-1 status in the fall 2020 semester. So Trump is forcing foreign students to study in unsafe conditions during COVID-19."