F-1 visa students cannot take all classes online: U.S.

Uncertain course:A file photo of students attending the U.S. University Fair in Hyderabad.G. RAMAKRISHNA

Uncertain course:A file photo of students attending the U.S. University Fair in Hyderabad.G. RAMAKRISHNA  

Foreign students in the U.S., including thousands of Indians, are left facing the possibility of falling out of valid immigration status following a Department of Homeland Security rule about attending online classes. Indian officials raised the issue with their U.S. counterparts on Tuesday during virtual Foreign Office Consultations, as per a Ministry of External Affairs press statement.

The U.S. rule, announced by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), says those F-1 and M-1 (non-academic and vocational students) visa holders planning to take only online classes in the fall (autumn) will not be allowed to remain in the U.S. Due to COVID-19, a number of universities are planning to shift all their classes online for the fall semester which normally starts in September.

On Tuesday evening (India time), Indian and U.S. officials led by Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla and U.S. Under Secretary of State David Hale “discussed ways to further enhance mutually beneficial trade and people-to-people ties, including through visa facilitation for students and professionals,” the MEA statement said.

Awaiting guidelines

A source told The Hindu that the American officials are “still awaiting implementation guidelines from the DHS, and that they will keep the best interests of the students in mind”. However, the State Department’s readout of Tuesday’s meeting did not make any reference to the student visa issue.

With at least 200,000 Indian students in the U.S, the country is the second largest source of foreign students, China being the first. The U.S. announcement comes weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump suspended H1-B highly skilled worker visas through the end of the year. Most of these visas go to Indian citizens each year.

“Nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the U.S.,” the ICE statement said.

Those whose colleges and universities were moving to an online only model would therefore have to leave the country or find another way to stay in status.

“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. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings,” the ICE said.

This difficult situation for students is exacerbated by the unprecedented disruption to international travel.

“They can try to switch to visitor status if they cannot get onto a flight, but that is not a great solution as visitor status is short term and there is no guarantee that it will be approved,” Cyrus Mehta, an immigration attorney, told The Hindu .

A temporary exemption for the spring and summer semesters, allowing foreign students to take more online classes than the rules normally permit, would not be extended to the fall semester. Normally F-1 students are allowed to take one class or three credit hours online.

“While the justification of the administration is that they are doing this to comply with a regulation that does not allow students in F-1 status to be in online classes, they can easily amend the regulation during this unprecedented pandemic,” Mr. Mehta said.

The president of Harvard University, Lawrence Bacow, criticised the ICE’s announcement and its “one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem”, as per the Harvard Crimson. Harvard had announced that it would allow only 40% of its students on campus in the fall.

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