Planning to travel to the United States for higher studies? Risk of deportation looms large if you have enrolled for an online course

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The United States has stated that international students will not be allowed to stay in the country if the college in which they have registered is holding only online courses. Those failing to comply with the rules will risk deportation, the government warned.

Students on F-1 and M-1 visas who face such a situation “must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status,” the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said in a news release on Monday.

Those who violate the rules “may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings,” the agency said.

International students constitute 5.5% of the higher education population in the US, totalling nearly 1.1 million in the academic year of 2018-2019, according to the Institute of International Education. As they generally receive little or no financial aid, foreign students tend to pour large amounts of money into US higher education institutions thereby subsidising Americans, NBC states in a report.

Colleges and universities, even prestigious ones like Harvard, have announced that they plan to hold online-only courses this fall as the United States struggles to get the coronavirus pandemic under control, NBC says.

The agency’s guidance stated that students in institutions with a hybrid of online and in-person courses may take multiple online classes. The new rules “should not affect students participating in OPT,” an agency spokesperson said, referring to the optional practical training program that allows F-1 students who have finished their study to work in the US for up to one year in a relevant field.

Harvard University President Larry Bacow said in a statement on Monday evening that “we are deeply concerned that the guidance issued today by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement imposes a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem giving international students, particularly those in online programs, few options beyond leaving the country or transferring schools.”

The guidance, Bacow continued, “undermines the thoughtful approach taken on behalf of students by so many institutions, including Harvard, to plan for continuing academic programs while balancing the health and safety challenges of the global pandemic.”

The new regulations represent the latest in a series of moves by the Trump administration to restrict legal immigration and visas during the COVID-19 pandemic.The Trump administration has made a litany of changes to the US immigration system, citing the coronavirus pandemic, that have resulted in barring swaths of immigrants from coming to the country.

Last month, the White House issued an immigration proclamation dramatically curtailing legal immigration to the US sending hundreds of people and businesses into a scramble to understand whether their future plans are derailed. In the proclamation, the administration argued that the “extraordinary circumstances” posed by coronavirus called for the suspension of employment-based visas. But immigrant advocates, industries and experts say the administration is taking advantage of the pandemic to make sweeping immigration changes and advance its agenda to slash legal immigration, according to a CNN report.

Monday’s announcement, like the changes that preceded it, could similarly result in many foreign students who often pay high tuition to have to return to their home country. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, DC, about 1.2 million students who fall under the affected visas were enrolled and registered at more than 8,700 schools, CNN reports.

Last month, the Trump administration had decided to suspend H1-B visas given out by US companies. The US H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows US companies to employ graduate level workers in specialty occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise in specialized fields such as in IT, finance, accounting, architecture, engineering, mathematics, science, medicine, etc. Employees of  Indian IT firms have worked in the US using these visas for a number of years.