ICE Issues Guidance for International Students in Fall 2020 Due to COVID-19

July 24, 2020 | United States of America

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has provided updated guidance for international students during the 2020 fall semester due to COVID-19.

ICE has published guidance clarifying questions for the 2020 fall semester based on the Student and Exchange Visitor Program’s (SVEP) March 9, 2020 Spring Guidance Broadcast.

In select cases, students on F and M visas who are outside the United States may be able to receive a visa to study in the United States if their program of study is fully online in fall 2020 at the discretion of the U.S. Department of State (DOS). However, the DOS will generally deny requests for fully online studies. The Spring Guidance Broadcast states that the DOS should not issue a Form I-20 “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status” for students in new or initial status who are outside the United States and who plan to take classes fully online at an SEVP-certified educational institution. Therefore, new or initial nonimmigrant students who plan to take courses fully online will not likely be able to obtain an F-1 or an M-1 visa to study in the U.S. Nonimmigrant students who were enrolled in a course of study in the U.S. on March 9, 2020 but left the country will likely remain eligible for a visa, as the March 2020 guidance allowed fully online study from within the U.S. or abroad. The March 2020 guidance applies to nonimmigrant students who were enrolled at a U.S. school on March 9, 2020 and were in compliance with their nonimmigrant status terms.

However, international students who are enrolled in a hybrid in-person and online course structure will be permitted to study in the U.S. in fall 2020. The March 2020 guidance states that nonimmigrant students who are enrolled in a dual in-person and online program can maintain their F-1 or M-1 status if they are pursuing the same hybrid course structure in the upcoming fall semester. Nonimmigrant students who are in New or Initial status after March 9, 2020 will not be able to enter the U.S. as a nonimmigrant student enrolled at a U.S. school if their courses are entirely online.

The March guidance also allows students  who are currently in the U.S. to remain in the country to study if they are enrolled in a fully online course of study in fall 2020, provided they have not violated the terms of their nonimmigrant status since March 9, 2020. The provisions apply to students who are starting a new program of study that is completely online. Students in this category do not need a new visa to continue their course of study. They can continue their coursework virtually without being subject to removal based on their online education status. However, students who otherwise violate U.S. laws and regulations may be subject to removal.

International students can also remain in the U.S. if the school where they are currently enrolled switches from in-person instruction to online education or a hybrid online and in-person course of study in the fall 2020 semester. Students in this situation can maintain their legal status without being subject to the initiation of removal proceedings. However, they may be subject to removal if they violate U.S. laws and regulations.

Schools that are enrolling M or F-visa students in fall 2020 should submit substantive changes in their procedural plans to ICE within 10 days of their decision. SVEP-certified educational institutions that have not filed procedural change plans and have active nonimmigrant students enrolled for the fall 2020 semester should submit a procedural change plan noting changes to existing procedures caused by COVID-19. Schools are advised to review COVID-19 FAQs for the SEVP program for information on issuing Forms I-20. Schools that previously issued Forms I-20 for M or F students, or that did not issue Forms I-20 due to the July 6th guidance or July 7th FAQs, do not need to reissue Forms I-20 unless there are substantive changes that would necessitate an update. Certified schools are permitted to issue Forms I-20 electronically. They do not need to request permission from SEVP or submit a report of their plans to submit Forms I-20 electronically as part of their COVID-19 procedural changes.