When Solene Seaman, a junior at the University of South Florida from Dominica, saw the news in a group chat, she thought it was a joke.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency known as ICE, issued guidelines Monday stating that most international students may not remain in the U.S. if their courses are only online. The announcement came as Florida universities finalize their plans to reopen this fall amid a rising number of coronavirus cases.
Seaman, 20, said she broke down explaining the situation to her mother in Dominica, an island nation in the Caribbean. She’s stayed mostly in her apartment since the school shut down in March, she said, avoiding even grocery trips when possible. But the regulations present her with what feels like an impossible choice.
“It’s a really scary option,” she said. “But I will go (to class) in person if I have to because my education is that important to me.”
Under the new rules, international students may take online courses from U.S. institutions from their home countries, or transfer to other U.S. schools offering face-to-face instruction, the agency said. The rules apply to those with F-1 visas, which are for students in academic and language programs, and those with M-1 visas, for students in vocational programs.
If a university is offering a mix of in-person and online courses, as Florida’s state universities intend to do, international students on F-1 visas may take some of their courses online and still remain in the U.S. Students on M-1 visa statuses may not take any courses online. Those who don’t comply are subject to immigration consequences, including initiating deportation.
If there is a change from in-person to online classes mid-semester, universities have 10 days to report it and international students must leave the country.
At USF, which is still completing its fall course schedule, international students make up a significant portion of the student population.
The university sent an email to students Tuesday stating USF would offer both in-person and online classes and provide international students with certification for their visas. Students who are unable to return to the U.S. before the start of the fall semester are asked to put a hold on their certifications to be able to take classes online from their home countries and can re-activate in the spring.
Still, much remains uncertain. University officials are still trying to learn more about the policy, and many students are left with anxiety over what this could mean for their long-term plans.
Seaman said she doesn’t know how leaving the country for an extended period will impact her visa status in coming back, and ICE has offered little guidance. Like many international students, she also doesn’t know what this means for her scholarships, which require her to take a certain number of credit hours in-person.
”Many international students don’t have a backup plan,” said Seaman, who is president of the Caribbean Student Association. “Coming here for education was our only option.”
She said she never planned to come to the U.S. until Hurricane Irma devastated her home country in 2017. She is studying health sciences and plans to go to nursing school, but now worries what will happen if USF switches to online-only classes in the middle of the semester.
“I might lose everything I’ve spent the last two years working for,” Seaman said.
The university said a planned pivot to online-only learning after the Thanksgiving break is for one week and will not jeopardize anyone’s visa status.
Ahmad Yakzan, an immigration attorney with American Dream Law office, called the guidelines cruel, asking students to find a way to leave the country on their own dime with short notice.
“This is absolutely horrible and terrible and inhumane,” he said. “These are not people in violation of status. ... This is just the government’s way of sticking it to (people from other countries) who are here at a time when filing for immigration is down 60 percent anyway.”
In 2019, USF enrolled 4,620 international students or about 9 percent of the student population. Florida’s state universities enroll more than 30,000 international students, according to the State University System website.
Ocean Campbell, a 19-year-old USF student from Barbados, said he was still in disbelief over Monday’s announcement.
“It’s like they’re saying, ‘Go to school and risk your life or get out of the country,‘” he said. “It also seems like an unwise economic decision, because international students pay a hell of a lot of money to go to school in the U.S.”
International and out-of-state students pay around 2.7 times more than Florida residents for undergraduate tuition and fees, and more than twice as much at the graduate level.
Campbell said obtaining a visa to study in the U.S. in the first place can be difficult, especially in countries where standardized testing is not commonly offered. He said he hopes to see USF and other schools push back on the guidelines.
“They stress how important diversity is on campus,” he said. “I’d really like to see what they do to protect us.”
Moez Limayem, dean of USF’s Muma College of Business, said the university is concerned and will advocate for its students if they can.
“We want to first make sure we are understanding and interpreting it right,” he said. “Our commitment is to helping our students graduate and start successful careers. We have no option but to follow laws, but we will do everything we can to help our students within guidelines.”
Nirun Kumaresan, president of a student organization called American Cultured Desi, focused on South Asian issues, said many leaders in his organization are international students.
“Losing them would be a huge factor to diversity (on campus),” he said.
Kumaresan is an American citizen and his organization issued a statement calling the guidelines xenophobic.
“As Americans, it’s our duty to speak out for those who don’t have a voice in these matters,” he said. “It’s causing a culture in our country that it’s OK to just kick people out from different cultures and backgrounds. And it’s not okay.”