On July 6, 2020 the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), a branch of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, charged with regulating universities that admit foreign students, provided long awaited guidance for the fall 2020 semester. In an unexpected about face from guidance issued in March 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 response effort by higher education, SEVP has determined that foreign students on F-1 visas cannot attend universities that will be 100% remote during the fall 2020 semester.
This new guidance forbids universities from issuing I-20s, mandatory F-1 paperwork, to returning or transfer students and to new students if their programs for the fall 2020 semester will be 100% remote. It also forbids U.S. consulates from issuing F-1 Student visas to these same students, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) from allowing them to enter our land borders. SEVP has also made clear that F-1 students currently in the United States, who were planning to attend 100% remote programs for the Fall 2020 semester, must either transfer to a hyrbid or in-person program, depart from the United States or face removal proceedings in immigration court.
In a broadcast message also issued on July 6, to all universities that admit foreign students, SEVP provided additional information on how it will implement this new policy: F-1 students attending “schools adopting a hybrid model- that is a mixture of online and in person classes—will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online.” This three credit hours online limitation had been the long-time standard for foreign students. However, this limitation was lifted in March 2020 guidance as most universities moved to 100% online instruction to complete the spring 2020 semester. Advocates and university administrators were anticipating that the March 2020 guidance would remain in place for fall 2020, thus allowing universities and F-1 students flexibility in addressing varying COVID-19 outbreak levels and state public health mandates. Instead, universities will be scrambling to create new hybrid programs, comply with SEVP paperwork requirements, admit transfer students and calm the fears and uncertainty of their students.
According to the guidance issued today, universities must take the following steps to be in compliance with SEVP requirements:
- Within 21 days of July 6, 2020, update and reissue new I-20s to each and every foreign student who will attend school in the United States in the fall 2020 semester to reflect the 3 new certifications:
- That the program is not entirely online;
- That the student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester; and
- That the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program.
- By August 1, schools that will proceed with a hybrid model or an altered semester schedule must update their operational plans and submit them to SEVP.
Two other important limitations should be noted:
(1) F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students pursing vocational degrees are not permitted to enroll in any online courses. These students have no accommodations available to them.
(2) F-1 students who attend fully in-person programs in fall 2020 must follow the standard SEVP regulations, limiting them to 3 credit hours of online course(s) per semester.
Universities should be vigilant when updating operational plans to ensure that they meet the SEVP definition of a hybrid program, in order to ensure that all I-20s issued will be valid and their students will remain in legal immigration status. It is anticipated that additional guidance will be forthcoming as advocates in the university community communicate with SEVP as to the havoc and difficulties this new policy has created. Similarly, when advising F-1 visa holders in the United States, universities should advise them to seek their own immigration counsel, as each student’s situation and immigration history will be different.
We will provide further updates as they become available.