Universities and students react to recent visa restrictions announced by ICE

By Jose Zepeda

International students with F-1 or M-1 visas studying in the United States will not be able to stay in the country if their school switches to online learning, according to an announcement made by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Monday.

The announcement comes as universities and colleges throughout the country continue to announce their plans to either bring students back to campus or keep them home and conduct online learning for the fall 2020 semester.

Specifically, the announcement states the following:

  • If the F-1 or M-1 visa holding student is attending a college or university that is conducting all work online, the student will no longer be allowed in the United States.
  • If the F-1 visa holding student is attending a college or university where operation is normal, they can only take one online class (or up to three credit hours).
  • If the F-1 visa holding student is attending a college or university that is conducting work in a hybrid matter, the student is allowed to take more than one online class, though the school itself has to certify to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program that the student is not taking just online classes. This does not apply to F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students pursuing vocational degrees. They will not be permitted to enroll in any online classes.
  • If a school switches from regular or hybrid teaching to fully online teaching, the school will have to update their information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System within 10 days, and any students with F-1 or M-1 visas will have to leave the United States, or find alternative ways to stay in the country, such as enrolling in a different school.

On June 18, the University of Illinois system announced that all three schools would bring students back in a hybrid format.

Under ICE’s new restrictions, any international students attending the Urbana-Champaign campus will be allowed to take multiple online classes, along with in-person classes. Issues would rise if the University decides to switch to online-only learning.

Tim Killeen, president of the University of Illinois System, released a statement Wednesday addressing the announced restrictions.

“We are profoundly concerned about new visa limitations announced by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) that would forbid international students from living in our country if their universities operate solely online,” the statement read.

Killeen also mentioned that plans may be revised if the pandemic worsens, indicating that online-only learning may be a decision that the University system may have to make.

In response to the announcement, the University’s International Student and Scholar Services released information Tuesday for international students who have F-1 visas. Students should expect to receive a new I-20 from the Designated School Officials that says the student’s program is not entirely online and that the student is not taking an entirely online course load. An I-20 is a document that provides support information on a student’s visa status.

“We recognize that this is a stressful time and that this announcement raises additional concerns for our international community,” the ISSS announcement said. “The University, colleges, ISSS and others are working to better understand aspects of the policy that are not yet fully clear.”

Kush Gupta, a rising junior in Engineering and an international student, said he is concerned about the future of his education.

“The common thing in this is that international students will have to take reduced courses if they are removed from the country or if they choose not to come back to campus,” Gupta said in an email. “In case the university chooses to go online, the progress towards the degree is slowed and it closes a lot of future opportunities.”

Gupta has a plan in mind in case the University switches to online-only mid-semester. He hopes to have a job on campus so that he can legally stay in the country.

Around the country, the restrictions ICE announced have been met with criticism, with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announcing Wednesday that they are suing ICE to prevent the enforcement of the new restrictions.

“It appears that it was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others,” Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said Wednesday in a statement.

Harvard had previously announced that it would conduct its fall semester entirely online, though some students will still be living on campus.

MIT had previously announced last month that most courses would be done online and few people would be returning to campus.

Gupta believes that the restrictions also in place to aid universities in collecting money from international students.

“What this also does is ensure that international students continue to take the burden of the expenses of the universities as there is no option to opt out of it,” he said. “I believe that this is linked to the more anti-immigrant approach that the government has taken recently on the H1-B visas.”

UI7 News was not able to be reach ISSS for further comment.

Jose Zepeda

Jose Zepeda is a senior at the University of Illinois majoring in journalism and minoring in political science. He is now on his third year with Good Morning Illini, previously serving as director, reporter and crew member. He is also currently a digital intern for WILL, the NPR- and PBS- affiliate in Urbana and vice-president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists University of Illinois chapter. He also has his own podcast with fellow GMI-er Angelle Cortes called Just Chillin’. He brings previous experience as a features intern at The News-Gazette and as a daytime news editor at The Daily Illini. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JoseZepedaTV.