ICE Announces Modified Exemptions Barring Online-Only Courseloads for F-1 Students

On July 6th, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced significant modifications to their temporary COVID-19 exemptions for F-1 students enrolling in online coursework. These exemptions, which originally gave students flexibility to take more online classes than normally permitted, will apply the following restrictions for Fall 2020:

  • F-1 students attending school operating entirely online will not be permitted to take a fully online courseload and remain in the United States. These students will also not be permitted to enter the United States, if they are outside the country.

  • Students attending schools adopting a hybrid model of in-person and online classes will be permitted to take online courses.

  • Schools will be required to update the SEVP if their programs change to online-only classes, or if students change their course load to be entirely online.

Students in the United States who are enrolled in online-only programs must either transfer schools, or take other measures, to maintain lawful nonimmigrant status.

What This Means for Our Clients

The SEVP’s announcement has garnered significant attention in the press this week for its potential impact on international students, and what is perceived as a thinly veiled tactic by the Trump Administration to pressure schools into early reopening. However, the impact on F-1 students may ultimately be fairly minimal, largely in part due to criticism by major U.S. universities, which rely heavily on the tuition of international students.

Prior to the SEVP’s announcement, many campuses nationwide had already indicated plans to adopt a hybrid model of in-person and online classes for the fall, with few electing for a fully remote program. These schools will likely take action to further “hybridize” their fall curriculum, offering international students more opportunities to add in-person classes to their courseloads. Additionally, major universities and academic bodies such as Harvard, MIT, and the University of California, are filing suit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), citing the government’s failure to abide by the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) prior to modifying these exemptions. New York University, Stanford University, and Brown University have also indicated plans to join other leading academic institutions in an amicus curiae (“friend of the court” brief) in support of the suits, although these suits are not likely to be successful in reversing the exemptions.

While F-1 students will likely need to deal with the disruption of modifying their course loads, we expect that major schools will continue to adapt fall reopening plans to minimize the potential impact on international students. We will update our clients with any new information.

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