International students, education advocacy groups slam new ICE guidance

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — International students slammed new rules issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that bar them from staying in the country to attend universities with online-only courses during the fall semester.

The federal guidance announced Monday also limits options for foreign students enrolled in institutions offering a “hybrid” of online and in-person classes. 

International students at universities with hybrid models must take the “minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program” and cannot enroll in programs that are entirely online, according to ICE.

Existing regulations that prohibit international students from enrolling in more than three online credit hours each semester remain unchanged at universities with no pandemic-related curriculum changes.

Under the new rules, the U.S. Department of State will not issue F-1 and M-1 nonimmigrant visas to students enrolled in online-only programs.

Foreign students already in the country could face deportation if they fail to transfer to universities with in-person classes or update their course selections to remain in lawful status.

“I think it’s disheartening,” said Craig Anesu Chigadza, a rising senior at the University of Indianapolis from Zimbabwe. “For this happen so abruptly, when most of us are currently preparing to take on a new semester… makes the future extremely uncertain for us.”

More than 300 foreign students from 50 countries attend UIndy, a private university that plans to offer online and in-person classes in the fall.

No colleges in Indiana have announced plans to offer only online courses in the fall, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Chigadza did not have to change his fall course selection to keep his F-1 student visa, but said he worried about the health and academic prospects of other international students in Indianapolis.

“Having to take on in-person classes is going to be extremely threatening for those of us that have underlying health conditions,” he said. “And some students come here on a one-way ticket… So I think having to go back to your country simply means, for some students, they will not be able to come back and that means that if they ever had an American dream, that’s simply the end of it.”

Zeel Dholaria, another rising senior and international student at UIndy, said the new rules could heighten students’ risk of COVID-19 exposure as cases surge in some states.

“Either you stay here, take in-person classes and potentially get COVID, or they are going to deport you back to your country which [means] you travel [on a plane],” the nursing student said. 

Dholaria did not anticipate having to change her fall schedule to meet the new requirements for international students.

Bhumibol Shakya, a rising UIndy sophomore from Nepal, worried he had enrolled in too many online credits and could lose his student visa if he didn’t make changes.

“I believe it might impact me. The guidelines are not clear right now,” he told News 8.

The ICE announcement was “kind of a shock” and prompted him to call his family for guidance, Shakya said.

He remained calm and decided to wait for clarification before taking any action; a friend with similar concerns scrambled to update his own fall schedule.

“[My friend] had to drop some classes, which he already registered [for], just to take those hybrid classes. So he dropped all the classes that were online,” Shakya said. 

Barbara Mistick, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities issued the following statement: 

“This policy is not only extremely punitive to international students, it also threatens the safety of other students and the communities surrounding college campuses.  It is the exact opposite of what the higher education community, including NAICU, recommended last week to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf requesting extended flexibility for international students. “This move doesn’t appear to be very well-thought out. The new policy puts undo pressure on campuses to stay open when it is unsafe to do so. Transporting international students who may have been exposed to the coronavirus to other campuses (which would be the only way they could remain in the country to continue their education), or to airports to fly back to their home countries, assuming those countries are allowing flights from the United States, pose myriad health risks. Congress should take immediate action to help roll back this unnecessary and harmful rule.”

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, issued the following statement:

“On its face, the guidance released by ICE is horrifying. While we would welcome more clarity about international students studying in the United States, this guidance raises more questions than it answers and unfortunately does more harm than good. Colleges and universities have announced and continue to announce multi-faceted, nuanced models for reopening campuses this fall. Some are proceeding with online learning only, others intend to be primarily in-person, and many others have a range of plans for hybrid models. Regrettably, this guidance provides confusion and complexity rather than certainty and clarity. At a time when institutions are doing everything they can to help reopen our country, we need flexibility, not a big step in the wrong direction. ICE should allow any international student with a valid visa to continue their education regardless of whether a student is receiving his or her education online, in person, or through a combination of both, whether in the United States or in their home country, during this unprecedented global health crisis. Iron-clad federal rules are not the answer at this time of great uncertainty. Imagine a student who starts in-person classes at a college that physically reopens. If the college decides it must shift to remote instruction midway through the fall, this guidance could force the institution to tell that student to leave the United States and face an impossible return to another country that has closed its borders.Some one million international students attend U.S. colleges and universities annually, contributing greatly to this country’s intellectual and cultural vibrancy. They also yield an estimated economic impact of $41 billion and support more than 450,000 U.S. jobs. The Trump administration has indicated in the past that it understands the value to the United States of being the destination of choice for the world’s most talented students and scholars. That is why this guidance is both disappointing and counter-productive. We urge the administration to rethink its position and offer international students and institutions the flexibility needed to put a new normal into effect and take into account the health and safety of our students in the upcoming academic year.”