U.S. officials on Tuesday canceled a short-lived directive that would have prevented international student visa holders from entering the country if their schools were expected to hold online only classes during the coronavirus pandemic. Issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the rescinded July 6 guidance also set forth that foreign scholars in the United States who were not attending in-person classes were subject to deportation.
ICE’s decision settled a lawsuit initiated by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and preempted similar suits filed by other schools as well as several U.S. states.
Here are four things to know as matters now stand:
1. Online studies are allowed once again
At Tuesday’s hearing in Massachusetts, U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs said federal immigration authorities agreed to “return to the status quo.”
That means international students, who are present in the United States and starting classes in the fall, can remain in the U.S. even if their classes are all conducted online. As immigration attorney Rosanna Berardi explained to VOA: “As long as they are studying on a full-time basis, they are able to remain in the United States. The manner in which they study doesn't matter at this point.”
2. Foreign students' ability to study online while retaining a visa may not last forever
U.S. immigration law requires international students to attend class in person to maintain legal status. It is not a new requirement and precedes the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus. The U.S. government granted an exception to this rule in March when many colleges and universities launched or expanded online instruction due to the ongoing global health crisis.
When the pandemic ends, so too may the rationale for the exception. Legal experts say this is a fluid situation.
3. U.S. immigration law remains stringent overall for foreign students
U.S. immigration law stipulates that international students need to be enrolled full-time to retain their visas — a rule that has not been relaxed despite the financial upheaval many foreign students and their families may be experiencing during the pandemic.
“It's a good reminder that if students are having medical or financial issues, they can't take it upon themselves to drop a few classes,” Berardi said.
Students are encouraged to reach out to their school’s international office to make sure they are maintaining a course load that does not cause them to fall out of status.
4. Students returning to the United States may face hurdles
Students planning to come back to the U.S. for the coming semester or quarter may encounter travel restrictions and be required to quarantine themselves even if any in-person classes they signed up for are about to begin.
“They need to think about ‘when I get [to the U.S.] do I have to quarantine or what is the rule of the state that I'm in,’” Berardi said, adding ... “It's important for them to investigate and know their individual situation.”