Foreign students in U.S. could face deportation if their coursework is entirely online

Foreign students in the United States, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, will have to leave the country if their classes are all taught online this fall or transfer to another school with in-person instruction, a government agency said.

Unclear how, or if, policy would apply to Canadian students

A man wearing a face mask talks on his phone on the steps of Harvard University's Widener Library, in Cambridge, Mass. The Ivy League school became the latest in the U.S. to announce that fall courses would be held virtually, but the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said Tuesday that foreign students whose coursework was exclusively online could be deported. (Elise Amendola/The Associated Press)

Foreign students in the United States, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, will have to leave the country if their classes are all taught online this fall or transfer to another school with in-person instruction, a government agency said.

It was not immediately clear how many student visa holders would be affected by the move, but foreign students are a key source of revenue for many U.S. universities as they often pay full tuition.

China ranked first among countries of origin for international students in the United States with nearly 370,000 during the 2018-2019 academic year, according to data published by the Institute of International Education.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency said it would not allow holders of student visas to remain in the country if their school was fully online for the fall. Those students must transfer or leave the country, or they potentially face deportation proceedings, according to the announcement.

The ICE guidance applies to holders of F-1 and M-1 visas, which are for academic and vocational students. The State Department issued 388,839 F visas and 9,518 M visas in fiscal 2019, according to the agency's data.

The ICE guidance does not affect students taking classes in person. It also does not affect F-1 students taking a partial online course load, as long as their university certifies the student's instruction is not completely digital. M-1 vocational program students and F-1 English language training program students will not be allowed to take any classes online.

"We're not forcing universities to reopen, however, if they don't reopen … there isn't a reason for a person holding a student visa to be present in the country," Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, told CNN on Tuesday. "They should go home, and they can return when the school opens."

It's not clear how, or if, any such edict would apply to Canadians. Canadian students studying in the U.S. are generally not required to directly apply for those visas but receive confirmation of their eligibility at a U.S. port of entry provided they have the necessary supporting documentation, including a certificate of eligibility issued by the school they're to attend.

The Open Doors Report, a survey published by the Institute of International Education and funded in part by the State Department in the U.S., pegged the number of Canadians studying in the U.S. for the 2018-2019 academic year at just over 26,000.

Democrats pan 'senseless' policy

U.S. colleges and universities have begun to announce plans for the fall 2020 semester amid the coronavirus pandemic. Harvard on Monday announced it would conduct course instruction online for the 2020-2021 academic year, while Rutgers, located in New Jersey, not far from New York City, said Monday the majority of its classes would be delivered remotely.

California earlier announced its public university system, which encompasses some two dozen schools and nearly a half-million students, would keep classes online in the fall.

A number of Democrats in Congress denounced the policy on social media on Monday and Tuesday.

"Kicking international students out of the U.S. during a global pandemic because their colleges are moving classes online for physical distancing hurts students," said Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. "It's senseless, cruel and xenophobic.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday that China was closely following the policy changes in the United States and would do everything to protect the rights and interests of Chinese students.

President Donald Trump's administration has imposed a number of new restrictions to legal and illegal immigration in recent months as a result of the pandemic.

In June, the administration suspended work visas for a wide swath of non-immigrant workers that it argued compete with U.S. citizens for jobs. The administration has also effectively suspended the admission of asylum seekers at the southern border with Mexico, citing health risks as justification.

With files from CBC News