ICE Makes International Students Choose Between Risk of Coronavirus and Risk of Deportation

Harvard will hold all of its classes online this fall, meaning its students on F-1 and M-1 visas must transfer or face potential deportation. Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images

With a great deal of the country’s 4,298 colleges and universities expected to go online in the fall, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced on Monday that students in the United States on visas are required to leave the country for the fall semester unless they are taking classes in person.

“The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States,” the guidelines read, severely restricting access for students on F-1 and M-1 visas, the endorsements granted to academic and vocational students. While international students who are currently abroad may remain enrolled in online courses, students who are already in the United States must “depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status.” In more direct language: Visa holders must face the risk of the coronavirus via in-person classes or risk deportation.

On Monday, Harvard University revealed just how sweeping ICE’s new regulations could be in the coming semester: Though as many as 40 percent of students currently enrolled will be on campus in the fall, the Ivy will require all students to take their full course loads online. If Harvard, with its crimson prestige and an endowment that tops $40 billion, is unable to hold courses in person, it’s quite unlikely that other schools without those assets will be able to do so — to say nothing of the absurdity put forward by ICE that students have the ability to start and complete the transfer process in less than 60 days, as U.S. consulates have largely paused routine visa processing. Universities may also be forced to scramble to provide last-minute, in-person classes in order not to lose out on tuition in a year that’s already been a financial disaster. “This is appalling,” novelist and NYU associate professor Hari Kunzru tweeted. “It will put huge financial pressure on universities to do in person teaching, and staff will be asked to put themselves at risk.”

In regards to pandemic response, it’s hard to parse out how a change to visa programs requiring last-minute travel by thousands of young people is a responsible policy decision. In context of the agency under the Trump administration — in which ICE has separated thousands of migrant families; held children in freezing conditions and tent camps; and detained an American teenager for over a month — the underlying inspiration for the order comes into clearer view. If the apparently punitive action is designed as a pandemic prevention measure, it’s made even less sound considering the agency’s own coronavirus risk: ICE’s process of transferring detainees over the last four months has resulted in outbreaks in facilities in Texas, Ohio, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Since the beginning of the pandemic, migrants have tested positive for the coronavirus in over one in four ICE detention centers.

ICE: Foreign Students Must Take in-Person Classes or Leave