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UPDATE July 14th, 2020: The Trump administration has dropped its plan to require international college students to leave the United States unless they are enrolled in the fall term in at least one face-to-face class. The reversal came a little more than a week after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued an edict that stunned U.S. higher education leaders and students worldwide.

This week the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced that it would be implementing changes to temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students enrolled in online classes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic for the fall 2020 school semester.

The main takeaway is that the program will not allow for international students to remain in the United States if their fall school semester will be completely online. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many colleges and universities are considering alternatives to in-person classes to avoid the spreading of the virus. As a result, these changes seem to take aim at international students who would partake in a fully-online courseload. These changes allow for international students who are taking a mixture of online and in-person classes to remain, as well as international students who are operating under normal in-person classes that are bound by federal regulations.

SEVP recommends that students currently enrolled at a U.S. based university or college to consider other measures including transferring to schools with in-person instruction, or to universities that have adopted a hybrid model between online and in-person instruction.

These changes include:

  1. Nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools who will be operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States. 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 (CBP) permit these international students from entering the U.S. Active students currently in the U.S.enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status. If they do not, these international students face immigration consequences including the initiation of removal proceedings.
  2. Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools operating under normal in-person classes are bound by existing federal regulations. Eligible F students may take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online.
  3. Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools adopting a hybrid model—that is, 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 SEVP, through the Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,” certifying that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program. The above exemptions do not apply to F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students pursing vocational degrees, who are not permitted to enroll in any online courses.

Again, this means that current international students studying in the United States may not stay in the country if their courseload for the fall semester is completely online. If students find themselves in this situation, they must either leave the country or take alternative steps to maintaining their status – such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave.

This news follows a previous temporary exemption regarding coursework for the spring and summer semesters in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic. This policy had allowed for more flexibility for international students to take more online courses than was normally permitted through the program. 

As of Wednesday, July 8th Harvard University and MIT are suing the Trump administration over this guidance, and multiple other universities are expected to join this effort through other lawsuits as well. 

We’re paying close attention to news surrounding this issue and will provide updates as they become available. If this news affects your ability to study here in the United States, please contact your D’Alessio Law Group professional, or reach out to schedule a consultation to review your options for the upcoming school year.

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