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International students faced with 'a terrible decision': degrees or deportation



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International students are prohibited from taking a fully online course load this fall semester, as announced Monday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If they attend an online-only university, international students must leave the U.S., transfer to a different school or face deportation as a consequence, according to the release.

This is not a new regulation, according to a Department of Homeland Security website. Before the pandemic, students with nonimmigrant F-1 visas could only take one distance learning class to count toward full course study and M-1 visas were not allowed to take any. But when universities unexpectedly closed in the spring due to the coronavirus, ICE issued temporary exemptions to the online study policy. It was then modified again to prevent international students from taking a full online course load in the fall, despite growing numbers of COVID-19 cases. 

The modification states that students whose schools will operate under a hybrid model, such as IU, must take at least one in-person class in order to stay. But if the university decides to switch its model to online-only at any point in the semester, students will be required to leave the U.S., according to a press release.  

IU international students will not need to leave the U.S. during the winter session, which is from Nov. 30 to Feb. 7, according to the Office of International Services website

IU spokesperson Chuck Carney said the Office of International Services will work with international students to make sure they are in compliance with the modified rule. 

“Our international students should be assured that we’re going to be working with them to make sure that they are able to continue their studies,” Carney said. “That’s what we’re here for.”

A international doctoral student from Colombia said the modification to the temporary exemption forces international students to decide between finishing their degrees in person or leaving the country or being deported, all of which put them at risk of infection. Forcing students to take an in-person class puts them at a higher risk of infection than students who aren't forced to take an in-person class.

“They are forcing us to decide if we want to stay and complete our degrees, which is very important for our lives, or if we want to go back to our countries and be deported, basically,” the international student said. “That’s a terrible, terrible decision to make.”

The student, who decided to stay anonymous to avoid potential retaliation, found out about the modification Monday, when international colleagues started to share information about and petitions against it. One petition, created Monday, more than doubled its goal of 100,000 signatures by Wednesday. 

The modification also states that students currently living abroad will not be issued visas nor be permitted to enter the U.S.. if they are enrolled in fully online schools or programs. Students enrolled in such schools that are already in the U.S. must transfer schools or programs, leave the country or face deportation.

Universities and programs must certify that the university is not all online and that each student is not taking an entirely online course load by reporting to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. 

One international doctoral student from mainland China is particularly worried about undergraduate international students. The guidelines didn’t clearly specify what in-person meant, and doctoral students have research credits that don’t require classroom meetings but can be used as in-person credits, the student said. But undergraduate students have less flexibility with their credits.

“If you have to register an in-person class to lawfully stay in the United States, that is basically targeting the undergrads,” the Chinese international student said. "That is totally dependent on if the university will provide in-person class."

This student, who also decided to remain anonymous to avoid potential retaliation, said this rule is especially unsafe because it forces universities to stay open amid the pandemic for its international students to be able to attend. It could also force doctoral students to teach in-person classes.

"We didn't expect this to come so soon and so bold," the student said. "They don't even bother to pretend like we actually exist."

There were more than 5,000 international students at the IU-Bloomington campus a year ago, according to a report on an IU website.

Domestic students are allowed to take a fully online course load without consequences. Evie Munier, an international doctoral student in the Department of French and Italian, said this modification made amid the pandemic is clearly discriminatory toward non-American students. 

“It’s grounded in racism and xenophobia,” Munier said. “And it’s very scary for people who don’t have any say in the matter. We’re pretty much powerless.”

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