International students must leave US if they can’t take in-person classes this fall

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USC’s Bovard Auditorium. If colleges don’t offer in-person instruction this fall, international students must leave the country, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Photo by Amy Ta.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced on Monday that for international students enrolled at colleges that don’t offer in-person instruction this fall, they can maintain their student visas only by transferring to colleges with in-person courses or going back to their native countries to complete online courses there. 

Last year, more than 1 million international students attended American colleges on these visas.

“Technically there is a provision in American law that says you cannot get a student visa if you're taking online-only courses,” explains Sahil Kapur, national political reporter for NBC News.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic, some colleges and universities (like Harvard) are announcing that they’ll only do online courses in the fall.  

If colleges offer a mix of in-person and remote courses, or fully return to in-person instructions, then international students can stay, according to ICE. 

The Trump administration has been tough on immigration. Is this move a part of that? 

Kapur says it’s a bit of a mystery, but since the start of Trump’s presidency, the administration has looked for ways to reduce legal and illegal immigration. 

“In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have taken the opportunity to freeze new issuances of green cards as well as ... the H1B and other other commonly used work visas. … They say that these visas disadvantage local American workers, that they want to give preference to the millions of Americans who are out of work and looking for jobs,” says Kapur. 

However, businesses have a different perspective. “They think this would be harmful to the U.S. economy and harmful to their ability to operate and do business as they see fit,” says Kapur. 

International students also bring in a ton of money. Kapur explains that they’re mostly — or entirely —ineligible for financial aid, so they pay high tuition fees, and much of it subsidizes local American students.

“If we end up in a situation where this discourages international students from enrolling or if it leads some of them to say, ‘This isn't worth it, I'm going to go back home and pull back from attending this college,’ this could have detrimental impacts on American colleges and universities,” Kapur says. 

KCRW contacted some California colleges for statements on the new ICE announcement. The Office of Janet Napolitano, president of the UC system, sent this statement: 

“The University of California recognizes that our country benefits when the world’s brightest students and academics learn, teach and research on our shores. International students provide unique contributions that enrich our campuses and their perspectives ensure that we continue to be a leading academic force around the world. Making it more difficult for international students to study here undermines decades of collaboration between the United States and our international partners, particularly in fields that contribute to America’s economic vitality.

ICE’s announcement is perplexing, given that some degree of remote instruction is necessary for colleges and universities to protect the safety and well-being of their communities and the public at large, while still allowing students to continue their studies. Challenges and uncertainty related to COVID-19 are already weighing heavily on students; now is the worst time to burden them further with anxiety.

UC will assess fully how these changes will affect our campuses and our international students. However, this much is abundantly clear: The Trump administration’s latest actions impacting international students jeopardize our nation’s future as a worldwide leader in research and innovation.”

—Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson