Go to school in person this fall or leave the country. That's the message Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is sending to international college students with a new policy announced Monday, and it's leaving students scrambling to figure out their options.
The ICE policy says international students could face "immigration consequences" – including deportation – if they attend colleges only offering online coursework this fall instead of in-person classes. The Trump administration plans to issue it as what's known as a temporary final rule, which is legally binding.
Many colleges have opted for a sort of hybrid approach, but one international graduate student in Indiana says the announcement – and lack of clarity for what it means for his entirely online schedule this fall – came as a complete shock. We agreed not to use students' names in this story due to concerns for their visa status.
"It's very scary, because I wasn't really expecting this to happen," he said.
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He said he was navigating the COVID-19 pandemic fairly well, "thriving" before the policy announcement. He said he recently signed a lease for a new apartment a few blocks away; if he gets deported to his country of citizenship, he won't have anywhere to live.
He said a lack of communications from schools on the matter has left him and others panicked about how the rule may apply to them and what they can do about it.
Another graduate student said he found out about the policy from social media, and has yet to hear from his school even acknowledging the policy announcement. He said overall, it's a "disaster" forcing people to choose between their health or education.
And for some, in-person classes aren't even available if students want them.
"We don't have a choice right now. I, fortunately, got two classes, but there are many international students who have not been able to get into any classes which have an in-person component," he said.
The ICE policy says students already in the country can reduce their courseload or take medical leave to maintain their visa status. It also says students can and should transfer schools if their college or university isn't offering courses in-person. But transferring credits of specific programs is complicated and not always possible for different tracks of study, especially for those closer to graduation.
Other countries have also implemented restrictions on traveling to or from the U.S. due to the country's coronavirus response, only complicating the fate of visa students currently outside of the country or any who may be forced out.
According to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, about 30,000 international students enrolled in Hoosier colleges and universities last year.