U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) released new guidance on July 24, 2020, to clarify questions and answers regarding the Trump administration’s shifting policy on foreign students taking online coursework in the fall. The guidance follows the Trump administration’s agreement on July 14, 2020, to rescind a new policy to bar all nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students taking only online classes, due to the pandemic, for the fall 2020 semester from entering into or remaining in the United States. The bar now applies only to certain new students.
Below are selected highlights of the new guidance from SEVP:
• One question asks whether F or M students outside the United States can obtain a visa to study in the United States if their program of study will be fully online for the fall 2020 session. Noting that individual eligibility determinations for F and M visas are made by the Department of State, ICE responds that new or initial nonimmigrant students who intend to pursue a full course of study conducted completely online “will likely not be able to obtain an F-1 or M-1 visa to study in the United States.” If a nonimmigrant student was enrolled in a course of study in the United States on March 9, 2020, but subsequently left the country, “that student likely remains eligible for a visa since the [SEVP] March 2020 guidance permitted a full online course of study from inside the United States or from abroad.” The Q&A notes that the SEVP March 2020 guidance applies to nonimmigrant students who were actively enrolled at a U.S. school on March 9, 2020, and otherwise are complying with the terms of their nonimmigrant status.
• The Q&A also states that nonimmigrant students seeking to enroll in a “hybrid” program of study that includes both in-person and online components may maintain F-1 or M-1 nonimmigrant status if pursuing such programs during the fall 2020 school term. Nonimmigrant students in new or initial status after March 9, 2020, will not be able to enter the United States to enroll in a U.S. school as a nonimmigrant student for the fall term to pursue a full course of study that is 100 percent online. The Q&A notes that nonimmigrant students who have remained in the United States engaged in a full course of study and whose study will be fully online in the fall may remain in the United States, including “students who have remained in the U.S. in active status and are starting a new program of study that is 100 percent online.”
• SEVP-certified schools that have not yet filed procedural change plans and have active nonimmigrant students enrolled in programs of study this fall should submit a procedural change plan, detailing any changes to existing procedures necessitated by COVID-19, the Q&A states.
COVID-19-related travel bans remain in place for several countries and regions. However, the Department of State released guidance on July 22, 2020, indicating that students may qualify for national interest exceptions in some cases. For example, students traveling from the Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, and Ireland with valid F-1 and M-1 visas “do not need to contact an embassy or consulate to seek an individual national interest exception to travel. Students seeking to apply for new F-1 or M-1 visas should check the status of visa services at the nearest embassy or consulate; those applicants who are found to be otherwise qualified for an F-1 or M-1 visa will automatically be considered for a national interest exception to travel.”
• SEVP Q&A issued July 24, 2020
• SEVP broadcast message follow-up to all SEVIS users issued July 24, 2020
• “National Interest Exceptions for Certain Travelers from the Schengen Area, United Kingdom, and Ireland,” issued July 22, 2020
• SEVP COVID-19 FAQ issued July 15, 2020
• SEVP COVID-19 guidance for stakeholders, March 13, 2020
• SEVP COVID-19 guidance for all SEVIS users issued March 9, 2020
• SEVP optional school reporting template for COVID-19-related procedural adaptations