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Graduate Education


International students in US cannot take classes online only

Trump administration says students must take some classes in person, reversing pandemic-era exception

by Andrea Widener
July 9, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 27

In a reversal of a pandemic-era policy, international students studying in the US have to leave the country if they do not take some of their classes in person, according to new rules from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The policy, issued July 6, could affect hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students in chemistry who are in the US on F-1 visas commonly used by international students. Overall, 1.6 million international scientists studied or worked in the US in 2018 as part of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, according to ICE.

The chemistry students who could be affected by the new rule
Set of pie charts showing the proportion of recipients of US chemistry degrees who are citizens or permenant residents versus temporary visa holders.

Changes to a US immigration policy regarding online classes during the pandemic could affect chemistry undergraduate and graduate students who come to the US on student visas. In 2018, visa holders accounted for 6% of bachelor’s and 36% of PhD degrees awarded in chemistry in the US.
Source: US National Science Foundation National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

“This ICE policy is immensely misguided and deeply cruel to the tens of thousands of international students who come to the United States every year,” says Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, a coalition of top research institutions. “It is also likely to do further damage to our nation’s universities, which are already struggling with unprecedented uncertainty, massive logistical complications, and significant financial losses due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

Less than a day after the policy was issued, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit to stop it. “The effect—and perhaps even the goal—is to create as much chaos for universities and international students as possible,” the lawsuit says. The University of California system has also said it will sue.

US universities are just now deciding how to handle instruction in the fall. With COVID-19’s spread accelerating in several states, many universities were settling on a hybrid model that put most classes online, with a smaller number in person. “It appears that [the ICE policy] was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others,” Harvard president Lawrence S. Bacow says in a statement.

Under the ICE regulations, international students can take some classes online. But if all of their classes are online, those students “must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status,” ICE states. “If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.” Students will also have to leave if their classes start in person but become exclusively virtual.

It’s unclear if universities will change their plans because of these new rules. Colleges often rely on international students, many of whom pay full, out-of-state tuition, especially at the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels. In addition, most international students stayed in the US when the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns started in March and are still in the country. Some people are worried the change will put international students with health conditions at risk of catching the disease.

The policy gives schools until July 15 to report to ICE if they will be online only. Schools offering fully in-person classes or a hybrid model have until Aug. 1.

In an open letter, the American Chemical Society joined with 66 other societies and scientific organizations pushing for the policy to be “withdrawn immediately.”

The restrictions “will not only cost the US the current ‘crop’ of future innovators now enrolled in US schools, but could permanently destroy one of America’s main competitive advantages: our ability to attract the world’s best and brightest to study here, work here, and ultimately create America’s industries and jobs of the future,” it says (ACS publishes C&EN).

This is just the most recent immigration policy by US president Donald J. Trump that has scientists worried about permanent damage to the US’s reputation abroad and competitiveness. Last month, Trump stopped processing most H-1B visas, which both industry and academia commonly use to hire chemists and other highly skilled workers.

Many universities in other countries would welcome students forced to change their plans to study in the US. “We would be honored to teach excellent foreign students in Germany. Please, study Materials Chemistry in Dresden!” chemist Stefan Kaskel of the Technical University of Dresden, said in a tweet.


This story was revised on July 9, 2020, to incorporate additional reactions to the new immigration rules.



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