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Explained: How the US immigration move affects Indian students

Indians are the second-largest group of international students in the US, after the Chinese. What do the new guidelines mean? What options do Indian students have?

Written by Ritika Chopra , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: July 10, 2020 2:40:06 pm
united states, US announcements on international students, US international students, US immigration visas, US colleges, US schools, Indian Express Some are seeing the announcements as a pressure tactic to get universities to reopen for the fall semester. (Getty Images/Representational)

The United States on Monday announced that international students might have to leave the country or risk deportation if their universities moved classes entirely online in the upcoming fall semester. Students attending schools offering “normal in-person classes” can stay, but they cannot take more than “one class or three credit hours online”.

What do the new regulations by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement mean for Indian students?

This, in effect, means Indians currently enrolled in schools or programmes that are entirely online for the fall semester will have to come back home. They can stay back only if they take alternative steps such as a move to a school that offers “in-person instruction” (read contact classes) or choose “appropriate medical leave”.

Students, who had come back to India after the pandemic forced American campuses to shut down, will not be permitted to enter the US if their classes are entirely online. The same applies to prospective (or new) students who were going to join in the fall semester.

“One thing is very clear, students who are going to start an online course will not get a (US) visa till they are actually going on campus,” Sumeet Jain, co-founder of Yocket, told The Indian Express. Yocket is an online platform for students planning to study abroad.

What about Indian students enrolled in universities that have announced a hybrid blend of in-person and online classes for the fall semester?

Such students remain in the US, and those who returned to India will be allowed to re-enter the US. They will even be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online. However, the university or college will have to “certify” to the US government that “the student is not taking an entirely online course load for the fall 2020 semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree programme”.

This exemption does not apply to F-1 visa students in English language training programmes or M-1 visa students, who are not permitted to enroll in any online courses. International students with F-1 visas pursue academic coursework and students with M-1 visa pursue vocational coursework while studying in the US.

Also read | US tells foreign students with online classes to go, universities look at options

Why has the US government announced these changes after giving international students the flexibility to take more online classes during campus shutdown?

International students in the US are required to do most of their learning through contact classes. The pandemic and the subsequent campus shutdowns forced the government to provide temporary exemptions for international students to take more online classes. However, these exemptions were made only for the spring and summer semesters.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), under the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), did not say much on the reasons behind revisiting the above exemptions. Its press statement only said there is “a concordant need to resume the carefully balanced protections implemented by federal regulations” as many universities and colleges are planning to reopen for the fall semester.

US tells foreign students with online classes to go, universities look at options The campus of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., July 12, 2018. Schools such as Harvard, Princeton, and Georgetown have already announced mostly remote-learning semesters. (The New York Times: Gretchen Ertl)

Some are seeing this as a pressure tactic to get universities to reopen for the fall semester. The Trump administration has insisted that schools and colleges return to in-person classes as soon as possible. “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” Trump wrote in a Twitter post on Monday shortly after SEVP released its new guidelines.

How will this affect international enrollment across US universities?

US universities have already made admission offers to international students. The SEVP announcement could encourage prospective students to defer their joining to the next semester. As for the active or enrolled students, they may even consider dropping a semester. Indians are the second-largest group of international students in the US, after the Chinese.

“It’s not going to be easy for universities to now convince students to join (fall semester) online. Anyway, most of the students were planning to defer their admission to the next term,” Jain said.

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A QS survey of international students in June showed that over half the respondents intended to defer or delay their entry into foreign universities until next year due to the Covid-related uncertainties. The revised US guidelines are only going to cement such intent further, which means revenues of US universities, especially those which have announced an online fall semester, are bound to get hit.

How have the US universities reacted to the new guidelines?

Some universities have been quick on the uptake and changed their fall semester plans in less than a day of the government announcement. According to news website Poets and Quants, the Harvard Business School has decided against a fully online MBA programme this fall. It will bring all of its students back for classes offered in the hybrid format (in-person and online instruction).

Columbia University reached out to all its international students via email within hours of the SEVP announcement saying its International Students and Scholars Office or ISSO is “parsing the advance notice and is working closely with the schools on its implications”.

What options do Indian students enrolled in US schools have before them?

“The thing we must do now is put pressure on our individual universities and the international student offices housed in those universities for them to do two things: either create a structure that complied with the three different requirements that ICE has given, or ask the universities to lobby extensively for this measure to be rescinded and take this to court, where there’s a big chance it will be contested. These are the things that parents, students and alumni can do sitting at home,” Sudhanshu Kaushik, Executive Director of the North American Association of Indian Students (NAAIS), told /The Indian Express/. NAAIS is the largest and the oldest association of Indian students in the US.

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