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International students with ‘full online course loads’ may not remain in the U.S., per new ICE guidelines

Louis A. Simpson International building

The Louis A. Simpson Building houses the Davis International Center.

Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

International students enrolled exclusively in online courses in the fall will not be permitted to complete their classes in the United States, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced on Monday

The announcement came on the same day the University released its plans for the 2020–2021 school year, welcoming only first-years, juniors, and other students who meet “stringent criteria” back to campus in the fall, and sophomores, seniors, and those first-years and juniors who meet the same criteria in the spring.


Just hours before the ICE announcement, a memo from Dean of the College Jill Dolan and Vice President for Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun indicated that most classes in the fall semester will be conducted remotely, with the University hoping to finalize the list of in-person course offerings “by late August.”

If not provided the opportunity to stay on campus and take an in-person course, international students enrolled at the University “may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings,” according to the ICE announcement.

“The reality is that most international students right now have no idea what position they’ll find themselves in come August and beyond,” said Masi Nagdee ’22.

In the 2018–19 academic year, international students made up 12 percent of all undergraduate and 44 percent of all graduate students.

Entry restrictions for nonimmigrant students

Under the Student Exchange and Visitor Program (SEVP), nonimmigrant students on F-1 or M-1 visas “may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States” if they are enrolled in a school that will operate entirely online for the fall semester.


The ICE announcement said these students will not be issued visas or permitted to enter the United States.

Active F-1 students currently in the United States are instructed to “depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status.”

University Spokesperson Ben Chang told The Daily Princetonian that the University “is reviewing the recently issued ICE guidance to assess its potential impacts on our community and determine possible responses” while continuing “to stand with and advocate for our international students, faculty, and staff, who are an integral part of our community and essential to our teaching and research mission.”

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F-1 students enrolled in schools operating under “normal in-person classes” are exempt from these measures, because they are bound by pre-existing federal regulations that limit them to one class or three credit hours online in a given semester.

F-1 students working on Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT) programs outside of the academic year are also permitted to remain in the country.

According to the announcement, F-1 students enrolled in schools with a mixture of online and in-person classes will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online in the fall. These “hybrid” schools, however, must certify to SEVP “that the student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program.”

This exemption does not apply to F-1 students in English language training programs or to M-1 students.

The ICE announcement warns that “[i]f a school changes its operational stance mid-semester, and as a result a nonimmigrant student switches to only online classes, or a nonimmigrant student changes their course selections, and as a result, ends up taking an entirely online course load,” then that nonimmigrant student will still have to leave the country or “take alternative steps to maintain their nonimmigrant status.”

In an email sent to all international undergraduate students at the University, the Davis International Center said that it had contacted their SEVP representative and “will continue to meet with others over the coming days to discuss options for international students.”

The procedures and responsibilities outlined in the ICE announcement modify an earlier SEVP exemption that permitted nonimmigrant students to take more online courses during the spring and summer semesters, due to the pandemic.

The Department of Homeland Security plans to publish the procedures and responsibilities outlined in the ICE announcement as a Temporary Final Rule in the Federal Register.

The ICE announcement comes as part of a broader push by the Trump administration to reopen schools in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the same morning of the announcement, President Donald Trump tweeted, “SCHOOLS MUST REOPEN IN THE FALL!!!”

“Every year I’m enrolled at Princeton is a liability”

International students now face a myriad of confounding circumstances. For some, returning to homes may pose significant obstacles to remote learning, such as unstable internet connections or significant time differences.

A majority of international students at the University are nationals of countries whose citizens are currently banned from entering the United States by the Centers for Disease Control, and many countries have instituted their own travel bans against the United States, some of which may extend to their own returning citizens.

In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Nagdee expressed further concerns that international students like him must consider in light of the ICE announcement.

“Will student visas be terminated for those choosing to spend the year studying at a home institution?” he wrote. “Will they have to accept a full year of P/F transfer credit on their transcripts? Will a year at home now prevent students from taking a study abroad semester later in their Princeton career?”

Nagdee was also interviewed in a ‘Prince’ video covering student reactions to the University reopening plan and the ICE announcement.

“[I]t feels like every year I’m enrolled at Princeton is a liability … I, personally, would just do it online. But even then, I don’t know, because ICE could turn around in two months and say, ‘Hey, all you guys who decided to stay home and do it online? You can stay home,’” Nagdee said in the video.

Sten Sjöberg ’21 pointed out an ambiguous passage with additional concerning implications in ICE’s official guidelines for international students: 

“For the fall 2020 semester, continuing F and M students outside of the United States, whose schools of enrollment are only offering online classes, may remain in Active status in SEVIS [Student Exchange and Visitor Information System] if they are taking online courses and are able to meet the normal full course of study requirements or the requirements for a reduced course of study. Only students enrolled at a school that is only offering online coursework can engage in remote learning from their home country,” according to ICE guidelines.

For international students enrolled at a school such as the University, which will offer a limited number of in-person classes but also mandate that at least half of its students take only online classes in the fall, “it seems like ICE is saying, ‘you can’t be in the U.S., and you can’t be at home either,’” Sjöberg said.

A more “charitable” interpretation, Sjöberg continued, is that “if a school offers only online classes to a specific international student, then they can continue their studies at home … and uphold their Visa status.”

“This sort of broadcast is really endemic of a problem in U.S. immigrations right now, which is that … this statement is so ambiguous. People have many good reasons to wonder what it means for them,” Sjöberg said.

Students seek to help one another

International students at the University have already begun to rally in an effort to remain in the United States, uphold their nonimmigrant student status, and continue their education.

In a widely-circulated email, Joanna Zhang ’21 invited international students to work on proposing an in-person reading course, which will enable them to petition the University to stay on campus. Tanvi Kishore ’22 and Isabella Hilditch ’22 created a public Instagram account and a Linktree with information and resources to support the University’s international community.  

The Undergraduate Student Government (USG) is hosting two open Zoom meetings on Sunday, July 12, to discuss the new ICE guidelines and the concerns of international students. They will be held at 3:30 PM EDT and 9:30 PM EDT. USG is planning to share these concerns and next steps in a later meeting with the Davis International Center.