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ICE Forbids International Students From Taking Only Online Classes, Threatens Deportation

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

URBANA – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued new restrictions Monday on international students planning to attend American colleges and universities this fall. The guidance from ICE states that international students are forbidden from taking a full online course load while residing in the U.S. The news comes as universities and colleges formulate plans to reopen during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with some opting for a mix of in-person and online learning

According to ICE, students attending schools operating solely online this fall may not live in the U.S. The U.S. Department of State won’t issue visas to international students enrolled in schools or programs that are fully online, and international students currently in the country that are enrolled in such programs must leave or transfer to another college or university offering in-person instruction in order to legally remain in the U.S. If not, the rules say they could face deportation. 

Those attending schools operating under normal in-person class structures are covered under existing regulations, which allow them to take up to one class or three credit hours online. 

For students attending schools taking a hybrid approach — meaning a mix of online and face-to-face instruction — international students on an F-1 visa will be able to take more than one online class, but only so long as their university or college certifies that the program is not entirely online and that the student isn’t taking only online classes. Meanwhile, students with M-1 visas who are pursuing vocational studies are not permitted to enroll in any online courses. 

If a college or university transfers all instruction to online only at any point during the semester, students on F-1 visas must “leave the country or take alternative steps to maintain their nonimmigrant status such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave,” according to the guidance from ICE. ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program previously issued a temporary exemption regarding online courses for the spring and summer semesters due to the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing international students to take more online classes than normally permitted.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign enrolls one of the highest percentages of international students in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report rankings for the 2018-19 academic year. Last fall, the university enrolled nearly 11,000 international students, most coming from China. A spokesperson for the U of I says they’re reviewing the new guidance from ICE and will contact affected international students directly. 

If you’re an international student enrolled at an Illinois college or university, we want to hear from you. Contact reporter Lee Gaines at lvgaines@illinois.edu. 

You can also follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines


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