International students must leave the country or transfer schools if their classes move fully online, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a July 6 statement.
During the 2019-20 academic year, 134 Elon University students held visas, according to the university Fact Book.
Mike, a senior from Ecuador, who requested an alias name because of the fear that publication of his identity could affect his visa status, said he was in a state of shock after seeing ICE’s announcement.
“It’s kind of a feeling of being not welcome in the U.S. in a way, or from ICE,” Mike said. “We’ve done everything lawfully to come in and get our degree or bachelor’s degree at a U.S. university and now it’s like ‘Yeah you face deportation if a global pandemic happens.’ I think it’s just not fair.”
Students on F-1 visas, which are granted for academic programs, are not permitted to take a full online course load and remain in the country, ICE said. The U.S. Department of State won’t issue visas to students enrolled in programs that are fully online, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection won’t allow those students to enter the country, the statement said.
“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,” the statement said. “If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”
Visa-holding students attending schools with in-person classes, like Elon, can take a maximum of one class online under the new regulation, according to ICE. If a mixture of online and in-person classes are offered, students can take more than one online class. However, the school must certify through an I-20 form, also known as a Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, that the program is not entirely online, according to ICE.
Because Elon is planning to continue with in-person classes, students with F-1 visas will remain in valid status, Kristen Aquilino, director of international student services, said in an email sent to international students.
“Should Elon be forced to shift to online coursework, students would need to exit the U.S. to complete their semester online,” she wrote. “This situation would only occur in extraordinary circumstances. Elon is preparing for a fully in-person semester.”
Aquilino offered support to students and said the Global Education Center will continue to inform students about ICE’s regulation change.
“We share in your confusion, disappointment and anger at the circumstances,” Aquilino wrote. “You’ve heard us say before and will continue to hear us say that as international educators, we are humbled by the immense value that the international community brings to every classroom, every conversation, every team, every job, every campus.”
Elon transitioned to fully online classes for the spring 2020 semester on March 30 because of the coronavirus pandemic. On June 8, the university announced in-person classes for fall 2020 will begin on Aug. 19.
When asked if the university has a plan for international students if Elon switches to online classes again, Owen Covington, director of the university’s News Bureau, said they do not anticipate that happening.
“Elon University is working with its international students on an individual basis to help ensure a smooth start to the fall semester,” Covington said. “We are moving forward with our plan for a return to in-person learning on campus in August for all students and do not anticipate moving to full online learning.”
Provost Aswani Volety and Dean of Global Education Woody Pelton said in a July 8 statement, ICE’s announcement is “unnecessary and troubling.”
“We understand that a surge in COVID-19 cases could necessitate an adjustment in the way classes are conducted, including the potential of adopting more hybrid or remote-learning courses,” the statement read. “If Elon were to move away from in-person instruction for some period of time, we will use all available measures to enable international students to remain on campus, just as they did last spring when Elon moved to remote instruction.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a temporary exemption was created on March 13 that allowed students on visas to take more online classes than normally permitted during the spring and summer semesters, according to ICE.
Mike said he’s concerned Elon could switch to online classes, because of what happened this spring.
“If tomorrow or if two weeks into the school year Elon decides to go online because there’s a case of coronavirus or because things are not going well, then we’re in a bad place,” he said. “Because some other countries are closing their borders. I know Ecuador, I was here for three months and they had their borders closed for three months. So, if there’s a huge spike back to a lot of cases and countries start to close again and start going on quarantine, what would happen if I have to leave? Because if not, I risk getting deported.”
Mike said ICE’s new policy may not be that harmful for Elon students right now with the school’s plans to resume in-person classes, but said it instills fear in international students.
“We don’t know what’s going to come next,” Mike said. “If they can go to people that literally are contributing to the U.S. economy and are being lawful, and for that they can lose their visa status, I think they can literally do anything. I don’t know what to expect, honestly.”
Ariana Reyes, a senior at Elon from Honduras, is also concerned about what would happen if Elon switches to online classes.
“I’m a year away from graduating and the thought of having my visa taken away because of this whole COVID thing is very concerning and frustrating because I’m almost done, I’m literally almost there,” she said. “If Elon goes back online, it’s not their fault. It’s not the country’s fault. It’s not anyone’s fault.”
In the same email, Aquilino also said the GEC will work with students who aren’t able to return to campus because of COVID-19 or other visa restrictions –– including potentially taking online classes from their home country or taking a gap semester.
In response to the pandemic, Honduras stopped air travel in mid-March and has yet to resume it –– leaving Ariana wondering if she can make it back to Elon in time for the start of fall semester.
“My parents are concerned about me returning and I totally understand that,” Ariana said. “I guess I’m going back, but there’s all these details that are outside of my control, like airports opening or closing –– just everything, this uncertainty.”
Ariana said during this uncertain time, she feels supported by both the university and the GEC.
“I do see that they are keeping everything in mind and that gives me some sort of comfort,” Reyes said. “It gives my family comfort because they don’t like to hear ‘Oh, if your child doesn’t go back, their visa is going to be taken away.’ That is not a nice thought for anyone. It’s not a nice thought for my parents, or anyone’s parents.”
While Mike said he feels supported by the GEC, he doesn’t feel the same about the university as a whole.
“You’ll feel that for international students, it’s the Global Education Center and that’s it,” he said. “In some ways, I do think there is a lack of interest from higher-up executives at Elon. We always get our communications from the Global Education Center. Some people that can’t afford study abroad at Elon are benefitted from having international students in their class and it seems like that’s not important at all for people that are not the Global Education Center.”
Some universities are taking legal action against ICE’s policy. On July 8, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a suit against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security. Harvard is fully online this fall, while MIT is offering a mix of online and in-person classes.
The lawsuit asks the court to prevent both agencies from enforcing the policy and declare it unlawful.
“ICE is unable to offer the most basic answers about how its policy will be interpreted or implemented,” the statement said. “And the guidance comes after many US colleges and universities either released or are readying their final decisions for the fall – decisions designed to advance their educational mission and protect the health and safety of their communities.”
On July 8, The Duke Chronicle reported that Duke University — which is holding in-person classes this fall — is planning on joining the lawsuit.
A national petition being shared among Elon students demanding that students with valid visas be allowed to remain in the country was started on July 6 and has received more than 200,000 signatures.