In this Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019 photo passers-by walk near an entrance to a building at Harvard Law School, in Cambridge, Mass…
Harvard University, shown, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are suing ICE in hopes of blocking a rule that would keep international students from taking online-only classes. 

As American colleges and universities challenge a federal policy barring international students who take online-only classes from remaining in the United States, experts say the directive is enforceable and immigration officials can target students for deportation.

The recent guidance, released Monday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), halts an exemption, prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, that allowed students on some visas to take classes online while schools were shuttered. Now, if a college or university offers only online courses, foreign students enrolled there must transfer to another institution with in-person classes or leave the United States.

Immigration attorney Gina Polo told VOA the rule is enforceable against both the students and the schools they attend. 

“The schools are required, in order to maintain their ability to accept foreign students, to maintain certain criteria with ICE,” Polo said. “One of the main things is that they have to notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement if a student is not in compliance with the terms of their student visa. So, if they go to online classes only, and there are F-1 [visa] students that have not transferred to another school, they are required as an institution to notify the government.” 

ICE can initiate removal proceedings against students, issue them a notice to appear in immigration court, and begin a legal process to deport them.

But immigration attorney Miatrai Brown said it can be a long road before students are placed in removal proceedings, which is an administrative process that determines if an individual can be deported from the United States.

“With a lot of the courts closed or kind of halfway open, [a hearing] will definitely not be going to be anytime soon. But, yes, if you are putting in removal proceedings, and you don't have any type of relief available, then, yes, you would be removed from the United States,” Brown said.

Another way ICE can enforce its policy is revoking schools’ permission to accept foreign students if they fail to follow ICE’s guidance.

There are more than 1 million international students currently enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities.

According to ICE, visas will not be issued to students enrolled in fully online schools. Those visa holders outside the U.S. but registered in institutions hosting only online classes will not be allowed to enter the country. 

Students attending universities that provide in-person classes or hybrid programs can take some online classes unless they are enrolled in English language training programs or vocational schools and technical schools.

Ken Cuccinelli, a top official at the Department of Homeland Security, said on CNN Tuesday that the policy was created to “encourage schools to reopen.” 

He added, “We're providing and looking at providing so much flexibility to allow those openings to happen in a variety of ways. That doesn't mean there aren't still basic protections that are required.”

Harvard and MIT against ICE 

Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are suing ICE in hopes of blocking the rule. Experts foresee a paperwork nightmare if the issue is not resolved promptly. 

“For those students who are going to be enrolled in a hybrid program, the schools are going to be required to issue new I-20 forms [documents providing supporting information for a student's visa status] to potentially thousands of students within 21 business days of the July 6 issuance date [of ICE’s guidance],” Polo said.

Per ICE directive, if schools are fully going online, they must submit those plans to the government by July 15.

For Rafael Lima, a Brazilian student at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, coming back to the U.S. is paramount.

Lima is stuck in his home country because of another order that suspends or limits the entry of people who were in Brazil during the pandemic.

The communications major hopes to travel to another country, quarantine himself for the mandatory time, and then travel to the U.S. to be back in time for the fall semester.  

“It's a trickle-down effect of a lot of things tied to my college life,” Lima said. “It's my degree that is on the line. It's my visa that is on the line. It's possibly my scholarship that is on the line. And I also haven't even mentioned the fact that it's my senior year. And that is the year I'm supposed to really figure out what am I going to do postgrad life.”