In a move that stunned, dismayed, and confused international students studying in the United States, U.S. institutions of higher education, and others, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced on July 6, 2020, that nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students taking only online classes due to the pandemic for the fall 2020 semester cannot enter into or remain in the United States. The announcement said:

The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States. Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) immediately filed suit. “[U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] threw Harvard and MIT—indeed, virtually all of higher education in the United States—into chaos,” the suit says. Cornell University is organizing an amicus brief on behalf of other Ivy League schools. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore also filed suit, along with the state of California, several state Attorney Generals, and others. California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra called the policy “arbitrary and capricious.” “Shame on the Trump administration for risking not only the education opportunities for students who earned the chance to go to college but now their health and well-being as well,” he said, expressing concerns that the policy “could put everybody at risk of getting the coronavirus or [students] being subject to deportation” if they don’t comply. “Not on our watch,” he said.

International students, who number approximately 1 million, reportedly contributed nearly $41 billion in the 2018-19 academic year to the national economy, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. Many graduate students work only online, even without a pandemic. The new policy has left many such students in limbo, confused or considering leaving their educational pursuits in the United States and applying to universities in other countries instead. Some universities are planning tentatively to use a “hybrid” model of part in-person and part remote learning.

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