A week after revoking sweeping new restrictions on international students, federal immigration officials on Friday announced that new foreign students will be barred from entering the United States if they plan to take their classes entirely online this fall.
In a memo to college officials, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said new students who were not already enrolled as of March 9 will “likely not be able to obtain” visas if they intend to take courses entirely online. The announcement primarily affects new students hoping to enroll at universities that will provide classes entirely online as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
International students who are already in the U.S. or are returning from abroad and already have visas will still be allowed to take classes entirely online, according to the update, even if they begin instruction in-person but their schools move online in the face of a worsening outbreak.
The policy strikes a blow to colleges a week after hundreds united to repel a Trump administration policy that threatened to deport thousands of foreign students. That rule sought to bar all international students in the U.S. from taking classes entirely online this fall, even if their universities were forced to switch to fully online instruction amid an outbreak.
The new order was released Friday as a clarification to earlier guidance from March 9 that suspended existing limits around online education for international students. The March guidance was meant to provide flexibility as schools across the nation closed campuses amid the pandemic, but universities said it was unclear whether it extended to new students.
In its memo, ICE clarified that the flexibility applies only to students “who were actively enrolled at a U.S. school on March 9.” Officials at some schools — including Harvard University and the University of Southern California, which are offering classes online this fall — had feared as much and already told first-year students they could not come from abroad,.
The American Council on Education, a group of university presidents, said it was disappointed by the guidance. “We have been fearing this and preparing for this. We’re still disappointed,” said Brad Farnsworth, vice president of the group.
Harvard officials said they're asking Congress to extend the March guidance to new students but don't anticipate any changes by the fall term. New students can take classes online from abroad or defer their enrollment, the school said.