ICE Says International Students Must Leave U.S. If Their Schools Go Online Only

Houston's Rice University is trying to figure out how their student body will be affected by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement 's Monday announcement that international students attending universities that have shifted to all-online classes for the fall risk deportation if they don't leave the country.
Houston's Rice University is trying to figure out how their student body will be affected by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement 's Monday announcement that international students attending universities that have shifted to all-online classes for the fall risk deportation if they don't leave the country. Photo by Schaefer Edwards

In the newest effort by Donald Trump’s federal government to reduce the international presence on American soil, international college students now face deportation if their schools move to digital classes only for the fall.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency announced Monday that international students won’t be allowed to stay in the country if their universities switch to 100 percent online classes. ICE’s announcement was the latest in a series of rule changes by President Trump’s administration that have taken advantage of the pandemic to limit foreign entry into the United States, including the decision to limit legal immigration by suspending high-skilled worker visas in late June.

While these policies have ostensibly been implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19 in America, anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Trump administration’s priorities can tell that they are also of a piece with the stridently anti-immigrant worldview the president has governed by for the past three-plus years.

ICE’s new rules state that visas won’t be issued “to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester,” meaning they won't be allowed to enter the country. Any active students who are currently in America that are enrolled in any school or program that has shifted to only be offered online “must depart the country or take other measures,” such as transferring to a school offering in-person classes, or else they’d be subject to deportation.

“This ICE policy is immensely misguided and deeply cruel to the tens of thousands of international students who come to the United States every year,” said Mary Sue Coleman, President of the American Association of Universities in a statement blasting the new ICE rules issued Tuesday morning.

The new ICE policy was unveiled several hours after Harvard University announced early on Monday that it would only offer online classes for the upcoming fall semester, even though they are allowing about 40 percent of the student body to live in on-campus dormitories. Harvard did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how the new ICE guidelines will affect their decision to move to all online classes this upcoming semester.

Houston’s own Rice University is in the process of figuring out how exactly these new rules from ICE will affect their current semester, which is complicated by the fact that Rice hasn’t fully committed to moving online-only at this point.

According to a report by Rice’s Office of International Student and Scholars, one in four students at Rice are from outside the United States as of 2019. During that year, 478 international undergraduates and 1,311 international graduate students attended the university.

Rice's current plan is to offer a hybrid of in-person and online classes in the fall. All classes that have an in-person component will also be offered online asynchronously — meaning that students who opt to stay away from campus don’t have to be online while the in-person portion of the class is happening — but some classes may only be offered online. In-person class sizes will have fewer students in any given classroom than usual to accommodate for social distancing, and some classes will be held in temporary outdoor structures and large tents since the virus spreads less easily outside. In addition, face masks will be required for all members of the Rice community on campus, and COVID-19 testing for students, staff and faculty will be conducted on a regular basis.

When approached for comment, a representative from Rice’s media relations team said that the university is still in the process of figuring out how and if the new ICE rules will impact their international student body.

The most recent announcement from Rice says that while the dual-delivery system for classes is the plan for now, it's conceivable that they could move to 100 percent online instruction for the fall given how the state of the pandemic develops locally over the next few months.

"Given the uncertainties of COVID-19, the university may choose to do all instruction remotely at some point in the semester if circumstances warrant it," said Seiichi Matsuda, Dean of Graduate Students at Rice in a July 2 update on plans for the fall. Matsuda’s statement also confirmed that Rice’s tuition and fees for the upcoming academic year are remaining unchanged as of now.

Other local universities are currently planning to offer a combination of online and offline classes, including the University of Houston, Texas Southern University and the University of St. Thomas. It’s still unclear how their international students will be affected by the latest order given each school’s plans for both online and offline classes.

According to a 2018 report by the Institute of International Education, over one million international students attended U.S. universities in the 2017-18 school year, and Texas had the third most international college students in the nation behind New York and California. During that same period, international education contributed a whopping $2.24 billion to the Texas economy, and to the bottom lines of Texas universities, according to the report.
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Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards