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International students who are pursuing degrees in the United States and are currently enrolled in entirely online classes (many of which are thanks to the pandemic) will have their visas revoked and face deportation, according to a new regulation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The new policy puts thousands of international students’ status in peril and forces them to face an unfair and difficult choice: depart the country or take alternative measures and risk potential deportation as a consequence.

Understandably, the move has prompted widespread backlash and outrage, as students face confusion and uncertainty ahead of the forthcoming semester. We’ve rounded up everything there is to know about the ICE order and information regarding the various petitions you can sign to help international students continue their education.

What is the new ICE policy?

The new policy was announced on Monday. It mandates that international students “may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States” during the fall 2020 semester, despite many schools and universities across the country remaining closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While students attending a hybrid of online and in-person courses will be permitted to remain in the country, students who remain in the US while taking only online courses may face “immigration consequences,” including “the initiation of removal proceedings,” ICE said.

The ICE decision is part of a broader push by the Trump administration to reopen schools despite the ongoing pandemic, with President Trump tweeting on Monday: “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!”

What does it mean for international students?

If an international student’s courses are online-only and they have a non-immigrant visa, they cannot remain in the US or legally enter the US.

In order to stay, ICE recommends that students whose schools are entirely online should “[transfer] to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status.”

Students at schools offering a hybrid of in-person and online learning are permitted to remain in the country, although their school must certify “that the student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester.”

The policy also applies to students whose course loads change mid-semester, with ICE noting that students who change course selections or are required to switch to online-only learning must notify the agency within 10 days.

How are universities reacting?

Several of America’s top-ranked universities have condemned ICE’s decision. Schools including Harvard, Columbia, Brown, Stanford, NYU, and the University of Pennsylvania have taken action following the announcement to reassure international students, AP News reports.

Notably, Boston colleges Harvard and MIT are filing a lawsuit to try to block the decision and allow their students to remain in the country. UPenn is also pushing back and has promised to work with institutions to ensure students “can continue their studies without fear of being forced to leave the country mid-way through the year.”

NYU — which has the highest number of international students in the country — and Brown announced Tuesday that their fall plans will follow a hybrid model that mixes in-person and online classes to accommodate international students at risk.

Several tweets even claim that Columbia, NYU, and the University of California, Berkeley are also finding ways to circumvent the policy by offering one-credit, in-person classes for international students. Although this has not been confirmed yet.

How are students helping?

According to The New York Times, this week many international students raced to enroll in in-person classes to maintain their status — even if they were not connected to their majors.

Fellow students have also been quick to galvanize support for vulnerable international students. At nearly a dozen universities, students have started online spreadsheets so that American students can swap in-person course spots with their foreign classmates.

Notably, the social activism-oriented Instagram account @community_equity_ has posted various Google Sheets that include lists of available in-person classes international students can enroll in at universities including UCLA and Cal Poly.

How can you help?

Several petitions have popped up in response to the ICE decision, which you can sign in order to lend your support to international students.

A petition, addressed to ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program, demands international students taking online-only classes stay in the United States. You can sign it here.

Another petition is addressed to President Donald Trump and ICE, with the plea to refrain from deporting international students. You can sign it here.

Words by Sarah Osei
Staff Writer