A blog about U.S. immigration matters by Paul Szeto, a former INS attorney and an experienced immigration lawyer. We serve clients in all U.S. states and overseas countries. (All information is not legal advice and is subject to change without prior notice.)

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Tuesday, July 7, 2020

ICE Cancelled Exemption of In-Person Classes for F-1/M-1 Students

The historic COVID-19 global pandemic has impacted our daily life severely in the first half of 2020. People were ordered to stay home and employees were asked to work remotely. Schools also took actions to protect their students and faculties by hosting online classes.

For F-1 and M-1 foreign students, they were allowed to take online classes remotely in the spring and summer. Normally, they are only allowed to take no more than three credits of online classes.  However, the exemption will not be extended to the fall 2020 semester, according to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) announcement on June 6. 
Under the new policy, foreign students will not be allowed to remain in the U.S. during the fall semester unless part of their courses are taken in-person.  The sudden change of policy puts tens of thousands of foreign students in a very difficult situation.

Schools that Offer Online Classes only

For F-1 and M-1 students currently in the U.S., if their school decided to deliver all courses online, they would have to depart the country or transfer to another school that provides in-person classes. Foreign students who fail to maintain their lawful status may face severe consequences including deportation if their schools are moving to  the online-only mode.  Overseas students who are going to take all courses online in the fall would not be able to obtain a visa to enter the U.S. 
Schools that Offer Regular In-person Courses
For schools that plan to reopen and provide normal in-person courses, the foreign students need to follow the existing regulations. No more than one class or three credit hours online may be counted toward the full-time student requirement. It should be noted that, if a foreign student or his/her school change the mode of instruction mid-semester, and the student ends up taking a full course of study through online classes, he/she must leave the country or take alternative steps to maintain lawful status.
Schools that Adopt an "Hybrid" Method
Some schools are adopting a hybrid model during the pandemic crisis. They mix remote and in-person classes to provide more options to their students. Foreign students in these schools will be able to take more than one class or three credit hours online. For schools that plan to reopen in the fall and allow students to have both onsite and remote access to courses, DSOs must certify on the Form I-20 that (1) the student's program is not entirely online, (2) the student is not taking entirely online course load, and (3) the student is taking the minimum number of online courses required to make normal progress in their program. According to ICE, schools must finish updating and reissuing new I-20s for the fall semester to eligible students on or before 08/04/2020.

However, F-1 students in English language learning programs and M-1 students cannot benefit from this exemption as they are not permitted to take any online courses.
Travel Disruption / Health Hazards
This new guidance places thousands of foreign students, especially those who are present in the U.S., in a very difficult situation. The lack of international flights and travel bans make it very difficult, if not impossible, to go back to their home country even if they decided to leave. Closure of US Embassies and Consulates worldwide and President Trump's visa ban are also making it infeasible for students to apply for visas from abroad.  The new policy may also create health hazards in educational institutions as some universities could be induced to switch their teaching mode to "in-person" in order to accommodate international students under this new policy.

Alternative Solutions
During this uncertain time, it is very important for foreign students to keep in touch with their school and devise a plan regarding their legal status as early as possible.  Students should not hesitate to seek advice from school advisors and legal professionals if they are not sure about their options. There may be alternative solutions for international students to maintain their lawful status by, for example, changing to another non-immigrant status temporarily.  As usual, timing is critical here.  One must take actions before it is too late.  

1 comment:

Paul Szeto said...

Today, the Trump Administration has agreed to rescind the in-person study policy.