Trump administration says international students can’t stay in U.S. if they are only taking online courses

Flags along the Iowa Memorial footbridge, representing the countries from which the University of Iowa draws its students. Oct. 19, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

As universities increasingly turn to online instruction to continue classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration has decided that international students won’t be permitted to stay in the United States if they are not receiving in-person instruction.

“The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States,” the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), which administers student visas and is part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), announced on Monday. The decision is likely to have a major impact on colleges and universities across the country, including the University of Iowa.

During the spring, SEVP waived a standing requirement for in-person instruction for students on F-1 visas, the visa granted to nonimmigrant international students studying at U.S. universities, as college campuses closed down and classes moved online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That waiver will not be granted this fall, even if a university stops offering in-person instruction and moves all classes online in order to protect the health of students, faculty, staff and the wider community.

“Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status,” SEVP said. “If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”

All three of Iowa’s public universities plan to offer some in-person classes in the fall semester, but there is a difference between what UI is planning and how Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa are approaching next semester.

ISU and UNI are starting the semesters early, so they can finish before Thanksgiving to avoid having students who travel during the break return to campus. UI is keeping its normal schedule but moving all classes online after Thanksgiving.

In an email on Monday, Assistant Director of UI International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) Michael Bortscheller informed students of the SEVP’s decision and its impact.

Since the University of Iowa is moving to a hybrid system for the fall (of both in person and online classes), students will be required to take at least one course in person if they wish to keep their SEVIS record active. SEVP says that students are required to take as few online courses as possible to maintain progress towards their degree. In fact, ISSS will need to issue a brand new I-20 to every student verifying that they are in the minimum number of online classes.

Once the University of Iowa moves exclusively to online classes after Thanksgiving break, it may be necessary for international students to leave the United States. We are seeking further guidance on this point.

If all of your classes this semester will only be offered online or if you choose to enroll entirely in online classes, you will be required to be outside the US by the time classes begin in the fall. In addition to this, ISSS will be required to end your current immigration record. Depending on your circumstances, we may need to send you a new I-20 if you plan to return to the University of Iowa in Spring 2021.

Because of the complicated nature of this guidance, we cannot give one single piece of advice to every student. Instead, the advice we give you will be dependent on how much of your program of study you still need to complete and what your plans are after you finish studying. For this reason, we recommend that you communicate with an ISSS advisor so that you can answer these questions and so we can give you the best advice possible.

According to UI’s Office of Strategic Communications, “In fall 2019, 2,225 international students studied in F-1 status. An additional 507 were on post-completion training related to a recently earned degree.”

There are more than 1 million international students attending colleges and universities in the United States, according to the Institute of International Education.