International Students May Face Loss of Student Visas Due to Online Courses

Student visa holders were subjected to great uncertainty on July 6 when the Trump administration issued a directive prohibiting student visa holders from remaining in the country when attending online classes. The ruling required student visa holders to take at least one in-person class to legally remain in the United States. This ruling sent shock waves across universities and international student bodies who began scrambling to devise contingency plans as many universities had already announced that they would hold all classes online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration then issued an immediate reversal to this rule a week later. In order to clarify the confusion created by the recent rulings, it is important to examine how student visa rules have been evolving during this health crisis.

Are International Students Allowed to Take Online Classes?

Traditionally, student visas are not granted to students enrolled in online courses. Prior to the pandemic, to be eligible for an F-1 and M-1 visa, students could not take more than one online course per semester. In March 2020, a national emergency was declared due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) created an exception to the rule for the duration of the emergency by allowing international students residing in the U.S. on student visas to remain in the country, even though their classes moved online.

On July 6, ICE announced that students would be limited to taking only one online class each semester or risk deportation. ICE announced that international students that are enrolled in programs that moved their courses entirely online will have to depart the country or transfer to schools that offer in-person classes. The rule stated that international students would be limited to taking only one online course that is no more than three credits per semester to be eligible to stay in the country.

This rule suddenly upended students’ plans and many scrambled to find online classes to meet the new requirements. Others found themselves stuck in leases that they no longer needed. Many international students had to find airline tickets amidst travel restrictions. The ruling also affected billions of dollars in revenue from international students at a time when universities were struggling to meet their dwindling budgets.

Lawsuits Against the Administration’s Policy

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that they would hold online classes in the fall. They initiated lawsuits against the Trump administration in federal court, requesting an injunction and temporary restraining order that prevents the order’s enforcement. They alleged that the rule was designed to force universities to open, despite the risk spreading the virus. They claimed that the recent rule was arbitrary and capricious, as well as a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and lacked sufficient justification. Many other colleges, universities, and technology companies supported the lawsuits.

In a stunning reversal on July 14, the Trump administration announced that it had rescinded its policy. During the session at the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, it was announced that schools, ICE, and the Department of Homeland Security reached an agreement to rescind the earlier policy.

What is the Current Status of Student Visa Holders?

The July 6 directive is unenforceable, and schools nationwide will need to follow the ICE directive from March 13. Traditionally, to remain immigration status, students on F-1 visas must enroll in full courses of study. Students can enroll in alternative or online courses to maintain full courses of study. Students who remain in the U.S. must participate in their university’s temporary adjustments with regard to the Coronavirus by enrolling in alternative learning programs or online courses and continuing to take full courses of study. Also, similar to short-term breaks in school calendars, students may legally remain in the country if schools are temporarily closed due to the pandemic and do not offer alternative methods of instruction, as long as students intend to resume full courses when schools reopen.

Students who do not wish to take full, online courses must request a temporary absence. A temporary absence should be undertaken with the designated school official at the university or school that helps the student maintain immigration status. The absence is recorded in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) as an authorized early withdrawal. When the absence is less than five months, the student’s status is updated to active status upon re-enrollment. A student can then re-enter the U.S. based on their SEVIS identity number. If the student remains outside the U.S. for more than five months, the student will have to obtain a new Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status as the original visa will be invalid.

Students who are in the U.S. for employment training through the Optional Practical Training work program are typically required to work at least 20 hours per week. However, in response to the pandemic, they are allowed to remain in the U.S. despite reduction in work hours by supplementing hours through volunteer work. International students should remain in constant communication with their advisors and service offices to stay apprised of the changing developments. Additionally, an international student during this time should speak to an experienced immigration lawyer who can help them remain in the U.S.

Philadelphia Immigration Lawyers at Surin & Griffin, P.C. Help International Students Maintain Their Visa Status

For advice on how to maintain one’s visa status, contact one of our Philadelphia immigration lawyers at Surin & Griffin, P.C. today. Our attorneys help clients navigate the rapidly changing immigration rules during the pandemic. For an initial consultation, contact us online or call us at 215-925-4435. Located in Philadelphia, we serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and nationwide.