ICE will let international students stay in the U.S., even if their schools go online — but incoming freshmen still face visa issues and travel restrictions.

ICE Bars First-Year International Students From Entering U.S.


  • ICE initially prohibited many international students from staying in the U.S.
  • The guidance applied to international students at schools that plan to stay online.
  • New guidelines have been rescinded, but international freshmen still face barriers.

In a national upset to schools and students, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced in early July that all international students studying on nonimmigrant F-1 or M-1 visas could not stay in the country if their school does not hold in-person classes this fall.

The controversial decision, which has since been rescinded, marked an end to the agency's temporary exemptions, which allowed international students to retain their nonimmigrant status when campuses shifted to emergency remote learning in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Under the guidelines, international students at institutions intending to offer exclusively online classes this fall had just two options: leave the U.S. and continue taking classes online in their home country, or transfer to a school that plans to resume in-person instruction.

“Nonimmigrant students … are not permitted to take a full course of study through online classes. [These students] must leave the country or take alternative steps to maintain their nonimmigrant status.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, July 6, 2020

These changes also prevented international students outside the U.S. from legally entering the country if their institution continued to hold only online courses.

The Department of Homeland Security initially defended its decision, saying that it "seek[s] to maximize flexibility for students to continue their studies, while minimizing the risk of transmission of COVID-19 by not admitting students into the country who do not need to be present to attend classes in person."

ICE Rescinds Guidelines After School Backlash

Temporary ICE exemptions introduced in the spring allowed international students to remain stateside as schools shifted to online learning in response to COVID-19. According to a report by the Institute of International Education, 92% of nonimmigrant students chose to stay in the U.S. at that time.

But the new visa guidelines eliminated this choice for international students.

Both students and schools were quick to criticize the changes, with some arguing that the new rules effectively forced international students to choose between risking exposure to the coronavirus and deportation. "[W]e agree with the statement … that calls this policy 'immensely misguided and deeply cruel,'" said University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel in a statement.

Many critics, including Harvard University President Larry Bacow, viewed the restrictions as a tactic to pressure schools into reopening before it's safe to do so. Echoing President Donald Trump, who has long demanded a swift return to in-person instruction, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently told state governors, "It's not a matter of if schools need to open, it's a matter of how."

“ICE should allow any international student with a valid visa to continue their education regardless of whether a student is receiving … education online, in person, or through a combination of both.”

Almost immediately after the guidelines were announced, Harvard and MIT — which both plan to offer some or all online courses this upcoming term — sued the Trump administration, leading ICE to retract its decision just a week later. Now, all international students can legally stay in the U.S., regardless of whether their classes go online this fall.

But there is a caveat: Incoming international freshmen will be unable to legally enter the U.S. if their school remains virtual.

According to a recent article published in Harvard's student-run newspaper, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana explained that "international freshmen will not be able to come to campus this fall due to federal visa restrictions. … The reversal [of the ICE guidelines] does not apply to newly admitted international students requiring F-1 sponsorship."

In other words, while international sophomores, juniors, and seniors can remain in and enter the U.S., even if they're taking a fully online course load due to campus shutdowns, freshmen cannot.

Fewer International Freshmen Could Hit Colleges Hard

International students make up 5.5% of the total U.S. college student population, with about 1.1 million students hailing from abroad each year.

The federal guidelines introduced in early July meant that the number of international students enrolled would most likely plummet in the fall, putting schools under intense financial strain. With fewer international students paying full tuition, colleges stood to lose thousands, if not millions, of dollars.

Fewer first-year international students puts colleges at risk of losing large amounts of money.

Now that ICE has rescinded its policy changes, colleges can breathe a sigh of relief — but not for long. The barring of first-year international students from entering the U.S. should their schools go online still poses the risk of financial loss to institutions, especially if these students choose to defer their enrollment by a year.

Even for schools that intend to hold in-person classes, international freshmen face a number of obstacles with getting to the U.S., from suspended visa services to ongoing travel restrictions.

According to NAFSA, international students contributed nearly $41 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2018-19 academic year. With fewer first-year students from abroad, colleges will not only make less money overall but may also be forced to scale back financial aid packages for domestic students.

International Students' Future in the U.S. Remains Hazy

ICE has already changed its stance several times on how to support international students and U.S. schools during the COVID-19 crisis, leaving many students in limbo.

International freshmen who plan to take classes online in their home country should prepare to face several challenges.

While for now most international students remain protected from deportation, incoming first-year students from abroad whose colleges will hold all instruction remotely must choose between attending school online from their home countries, deferring their enrollment, or transferring to another institution altogether.

Those who plan to take online classes outside the U.S. should prepare themselves for multiple challenges, including time differences and forming bonds with peers and faculty.

How long ICE intends to prohibit international freshmen from entering the U.S. remains unclear, and guidelines could change swiftly in response to the pandemic. All international students should regularly check with their schools and local U.S. embassies for up-to-date information on travel restrictions, college enrollment, and visa procedures.