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Massive Win for Foreign Students

On Monday, July 6, 2020, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (“SEVP”), which is part of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) and is responsible for administering the foreign student visa program, announced significant modifications to the exemptions that were previously made for foreign students during the COVID crisis.   The regulations governing foreign student visas (F-1 for academic students and M-1 for vocational training students) limit the number of online courses students may attend in order to maintain their status.

Previously, in March 2020, SEVP made a broad exemption due to the campus closures arising as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and temporarily suspended the need for in-person attendance as a requirement for foreign students to maintain their nonimmigrant status.   The exemption allowed foreign students to take more online classes than normally permitted by the regulations for both the Spring and Summer semesters.

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Under the July 6th modification, SEVP significantly narrowed the exemptions for the Fall 2020 semester so that foreign students must take in-person courses in order to maintain their status.  The regulation prohibited students from taking all their courses online and if their program were to change to a completely online format, they would be required to leave the United States immediately.

The policy change caught students and universities off-guard and sent them scrambling to figure out how they intend to operate in the Fall of 2020.   MIT and Harvard were the first to sue the administration and numerous states followed with their own lawsuits.   On July 14, 2020, during a hearing regarding the MIT/Harvard lawsuit, ICE informed the judge that ICE will abandon the July policy change and will leave in place the policy guidance issued in March that allowed students to remain in the United States, even if their school is completely online.

As it stands, ICE has retreated to their former policy of allowing F-1 and M-1 students to remain in the United States, regardless of whether their classes are online or in-person.   ICE has not said whether additional policies will be forthcoming, so, students should continue to watch the news closely as things can rapidly change as we saw here.  This should be viewed as a victory for foreign students as the large outpouring of support was key to the reversal of the policy and is a good indication of the support that foreign students will receive from the public during this crisis.


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