New International Students Told to Stay Home

Two universities tell new international students not to come to U.S. to take classes remotely, as higher ed groups lobby for greater clarity -- and flexibility -- on federal policy for new students from abroad.

July 23, 2020
 

Harvard University and the University of Southern California have advised new international students not to come to campus this fall, saying they will not be allowed to enter the U.S. to participate in remote instruction.

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued earlier this month to block a directive from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that would have required international students to take at least some of their coursework in person in order to remain in the U.S. But while ICE rescinded that directive in response to the Harvard/MIT suit, the net result -- a reversion to policy guidance issued in March that gave international students relief from normal regulatory requirements limiting them to one online class at a time -- did not provide relief to new international students, who were not covered by the March guidance.

Further, an FAQ reissued by ICE on July 15 says new international students who are not already in the U.S. should stay in their home country.

The American Council on Education and more than 40 other higher education groups sent a letter to Chad Wolf, the acting homeland security secretary, seeking further clarification on the rules for new international students and requesting that all new international students who take a full-time course load, whether they are taking their courses in an online, hybrid or in-person format, be permitted to enter the U.S.

But with the fall semester fast approaching, time for the agency to clarify the rules for new international students is running out.

Rakesh Khurana, the Danoff Dean of Harvard College, wrote in a letter to first-year international students on Tuesday that they will "be unable to enter the U.S. in F-1 status as course instruction is fully remote." (F-1 is a visa category for international students.)

Khurana said Harvard is working with members of the Massachusetts' congressional delegation to change this policy but added, "Unfortunately, we don’t anticipate any change to the policy in time for the fall semester."

"Some of you have asked if it would be possible to offer courses in person or through a hybrid model that includes some in-person instruction as a way to enable first-year international students to obtain an F-1 Visa and join us on campus," Khurana wrote. "We explored this option and concluded that given the unpredictability of current government policies and the uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis, this path could jeopardize both our international students’ ability to enter or leave the United States in the future and our community’s health. We also concluded that we must protect first-year students from the possibility of coming to the United States only to be asked to return to their home country when local travel restrictions might make that impossible."

Khurana said first-year international students can either start studies remotely from their home countries or defer admission.

The University of Southern California also has advised new international students that they should not travel to the U.S. USC recently reversed plans to host students on the campus in favor of a mostly remote fall for undergraduates.

"If you are a new admit for fall 2020, you should not enter the United States on an F-1 student visa since USC will not be able to offer a full in-person academic program," USC says in an FAQ for international students on its website that was updated Tuesday.

USC said in a statement it was recommending international students stay home and take their fall coursework online "out of an abundance of caution," but that it strongly disagreed with the policy and was considering legal options. USC, along with a group of 19 other universities, filed its own lawsuit seeking to block the now-rescinded ICE directive.

"We are exploring all legal options and are disappointed that the Department of Homeland Security has not made a more affirmative policy statement to offer clarity and flexibility to new students and universities during this global pandemic," USC said.

International students who hope to come to the U.S. this fall despite the pandemic already face challenges in getting a visa -- embassies and consulates only recently resumed regular visa processing services -- and in navigating travel restrictions and limited flight availability. But many college administrators are still holding out hope at least some of their new international students will be able to make it to campus, and many new students still want to find a way to come.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at ACE, said colleges are anxious to abide by the rules the government sets. "But the confusion and uncertainty that currently surrounds international students, particularly new international students, is a source of great concern on campuses as we try to advise students," he said.

"The lack of clarity coming from DHS on this point has meant that it’s impossibly difficult for schools to advise students about how best to proceed," Hartle said. "In many countries, students will have to travel considerable distances and at considerable expense to get to a consular interview. I think what you see is a couple institutions that are almost throwing up their hands in frustration because they simply don’t think there is enough clarity in federal policy to enable them to confidently advise students about what will happen when they get to the embassy or consulate."

Hartle said ACE continues to talk with the Departments of Homeland Security and State about the issue. "We think that part of the issue here is that the agencies themselves are not in a position to make definitive decisions -- a lot of this is being directed from the White House -- so they’re afraid of getting ahead of the White House and they’re just proceeding cautiously," he said.

ICE did not respond to messages seeking comment on Wednesday.

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