International students wishing to study in the United States can be forgiven for concerns about the stability of U.S. opportunities and policies. A series of mixed messages, half-starts, monkey wrenches, and walk-backs emanating from the Trump administration in recent weeks confused and dismayed foreign students, their institutions of higher learning, and by extension companies and other stakeholders.  

The good news is that at least some of these students will now be allowed to continue their studies in the fall, even if their coursework is conducted entirely online due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions imposed by schools and other institutions. The bad news? New students aren’t included, at least not now. And some international students are feeling discouraged and looking to other countries instead, even with the change in policy. 

The administration very recently had announced, without warning or apparent planning, a new hair-raising policy to ban all foreign students from the United States whose coursework in the fall would be conducted entirely online through no fault or decision of their own. After conniptions by all involved parties, the administration just as abruptly rescinded the new policy, except for new students. A sigh of relief was heard ‘round the world, as this means those who are in the middle of their studies can continue here and won’t be driven out of the country or blocked from entering, or essentially forced to choose between their safety and their visa status in the United States. 

A few of the considerations reportedly influencing this about-face included observers noting that among other things, many graduate students do their work online anyway, even without a pandemic. Did the United States really want to risk losing those people, potentially sparking a brain drain, not to mention the loss of America’s investment in hiring and training many of them after graduation and the expected long-term benefits of retaining their talent, and the millions of dollars those students would otherwise be spending in the United States on tuition, fees, taxes, and other contributions to the schools and the nation?  

Below are a few highlights of recent developments and how they may affect nonimmigrant students: 

  • Those who are new and intend to pursue a full course of study completely online will likely not be able to obtain an F-1 or M-1 visa to study in the United States.  
  • Nonimmigrant students actively enrolled in a course of study on March 9, 2020, but who subsequently left the United States likely remain eligible for a visa. 
  • 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 this country in active status and are starting a new program of study that is 100 percent online. 
  • 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 they are pursuing such programs during the fall 2020 school term. It appears that many schools who intended to offer online-only courses of study in the fall are seriously considering (or have already announced) such hybrid programs as a way around the ban on entry of new students for online-only coursework. 
  • Some students who otherwise would be unable to enter the United States due to larger travel bans in some cases may be eligible for national interest exceptions. 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 seek an individual national interest exception from a U.S. embassy or consulate to travel. Those seeking to apply for new F-1 or M-1 visas should check with the nearest embassy or consulate; those applicants found to be otherwise qualified for an F-1 or M-1 visa will be considered for a national interest exception to travel. 
  • Student and Exchange Visitor (SEVP)-certified schools who have changed their existing plans and procedures recently should submit a procedural change plan to SEVP, if they have not already done so.  

For advice in specific situations, contact your Miller Mayer attorney 

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