The Student and Exchange Visitor Program, a Department of Homeland Security unit that oversees non-immigrant students, recently announced that higher education students taking mostly online classes may not be allowed to remain in the United States.

In its bulletin that affects F-1 and M-1 visa holders, Immigration and Customs Enforcement made clear that students attending schools operating fully online or in hybrid instruction mode may not remain in the U.S. Prospective students whose chosen universities offer online-only education will not be allowed to enter. Students currently enrolled in such programs must either transfer to schools that offer in-person learning, leave the country voluntarily or risk deportation.

ICE created understandable anxiety across U.S. universities. But its announcement isn't a new immigration twist; rather the order represents compliance with existing immigration law which strictly limits the number of online classes an international student may take.

For years, F-1 foreign students ,' more than 1 million are enrolled today ,' have arrived in the U.S., earned their degrees and returned home. The visa's original intent is exactly that ,' students study here, go home and use their U.S-acquired education to improve their native countries. But as with most immigration regulations, over time there has been a slow drift away from the noble intentions into something less admirable.

Not all of the laxity that prevails should be attributed to the students. Since visa enforcement is breathtakingly weak, the federal government makes abuse easy. A DHS report found that in 2018, 68,593 students remained in the country after their visas had expired, the highest overstay rate of any eligible visa group.

International students who study science, technology, engineering and math can now extend their stays several years after graduation if they become part of Optional Practical Training. Federal immigration data shows that today almost 1.5 million STEM workers have white-collar jobs that they couldn't have held had they not enrolled in U.S. universities. Eventually, they can ask their employers ,' or any employer ,' to file a petition on their behalf which ultimately puts them on a citizenship path. By then, the visa's original intent is ancient history.

Universities pushed back against the Trump administration's order. Harvard and MIT, among others, requested temporary restraining orders. Other schools are shuffling class options to make certain that foreign students can satisfy the in-person requirement. Public universities have a major financial interest in keeping the international student flow going. Students from abroad pay out-of-state tuition fees, often two or three-times higher than in-state tuition.

As the heat intensifies over the possibility of students returning home, two things are worth remembering. First, students who fulfill their institutions' graduation requirements from abroad will still earn a degree that's unlikely to include the qualifier "Earned Online." Their full-fledged U.S. diploma will allow them to go forward with their lives, and seek employment consistent with their college educations.

Second, deportation fears rarely materialize. During his 2016 campaign, President Trump promised to end DACA "on Day 1," and supposedly to remove illegally present participants. Nearly four years later, only a small handful out of about 800,000 DACA recipients have been deported. In fact, the reverse happened - about 40,000 DACA recipients applied for and received advanced parole which allowed them to leave the U.S. for humanitarian reasons and re-enter legally, which qualified them for lawful permanent resident Green Cards. Even DACA recipients with criminal convictions prove difficult to remove.

In 2014, John Sandweg, then the acting director of ICE, told the Los Angeles Times that the odds of illegally present immigrants, a category that would include out-of-status visa students, being deported are "close to zero."

With only four months remaining until the presidential election, and with international students generating substantial broad-based sympathy, zero sounds about right.


Joe Guzzardi is a Progressives for Immigration Reform analyst who has written about immigration for more than 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]