Federal rule puts international students in jeopardy

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Senegalese students learn about health and the coronavirus during an English lesson as they returned to classes on the first day back after more than three months away, at the Sacre Coeur college in Dakar, Senegal Thursday, June 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Sylvain Cherkaoui)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) — New federal regulations that could affect thousands of foreign students throughout the state are complicating Florida universities’ plans to reopen campuses in the fall.

State university officials on Tuesday were scrambling to figure out the full implications of a regulation issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Monday that will not allow foreign students to stay in the country if they only take online classes during the fall.

“The implications are significant,” University of Florida International Center Dean Leonardo A. Villalón said in an email Tuesday. “We are currently seeking clarity on some aspects of the guidance while also working on how UF will be able to comply so as to ensure that our international students can continue to make good progress toward their degree.”

Meanwhile, international students are awaiting updates from their schools, and some are growing fearful of being deported.

Carlos Causadias, a student from Panama who attends Florida State University, told The News Service of Florida he does not want to make any final decisions on whether he will remain in the country until he hears from the university.

“I am willing to wait for FSU until I finish my internship on August 14th. If nothing is clear by that time, I am going back because I would then be afraid of deportation (I am kind of afraid of it now),” Causadias said in an email Tuesday.

When Florida universities shut down in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, federal authorities relaxed student-visa requirements and allowed international students to continue their studies online. Foreign students usually are required to take the majority of their classes in person.

University leaders were hoping the flexibility would be extended through the fall semester, when most schools are planning to offer a mix of online and in-person classes in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Under the order issued Monday, foreign students attending universities with a hybrid model are allowed to take more than one class online, as long as the school certifies the students are taking “the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program.”

But the order also says that the U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students who are enrolled in schools that plan to hold classes solely online during the fall semester.

“Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status,” the federal regulation states. “If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”

The state university system’s Board of Governor has not issued any guidance to universities on how to handle the new federal regulation, according to BOG spokeswoman Renee Fargason. 

Florida International University is working to determine if the new regulations will have an impact on any of the school’s 4,197 international students, FIU spokeswoman Maydel Santana said in an email Tuesday. 

FIU currently has plans to hold instruction in-person, online and through a hybrid model, she said. While the fall schedule has already been released, students could see their schedules change before the fall semester begins, Santana added.

The University of South Florida “is aware of the announcement by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and we are currently assessing how it may impact our students,” USF spokesman Adam Freeman said in an email. “We intend to provide students with an update in the coming days.”

FSU Provost Sally McRorie said in an email Tuesday that university officials are currently working to determine possible course schedules that will help international students continue their studies at the university, without interruption.

The university has approximately 1,700 international students who could be impacted under the new federal guidelines.

“FSU’s final course schedule for Fall 2020 will be released July 16, and academic advisors will promptly reach out to international students affected by the new federal requirements,” McRorie said.

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