Update: University of Southern California has also let first-year international students know that they will probably not be granted visas to enter the US  under current federal rules.

On July 8, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology  – which have a combined 9,000 international students – filed a federal lawsuit to bar the Department of Homeland Security from enforcing the guidelines, which were subsequently rescinded following an uproar from the higher education community.

“Unfortunately, we don’t anticipate any change to the policy in time for the fall semester”

However, in a July 21 letter addressed to current students, Harvard dean, Rakesh Khurana, wrote that the reversal does not apply to newly admitted international students requiring F-1 sponsorship.

He explained that any incoming Harvard student who received a Form I-20 to begin their studies this fall would be unable to enter the US in F-1 status “because all undergraduate fall courses will be fully remote”.

“I am writing today to share the difficult news that our first-year international students will not be able to come to campus this fall,” he wrote.

“Despite the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division’s decision to withdraw the directive… this reversal does not apply to our newly admitted international students who require F-1 sponsorship.”

According to ICE, “for F-1 students enrolled in classes for credit or classroom hours, no more than the equivalent of one class or three credits per session, term, semester, trimester, or quarter may be counted toward the full course of study requirement if the class is taken online or through distance education and does not require the student’s physical attendance for classes, examination or other purposes integral to completion of the class”.

When ICE issued guidance in March that allowed currently enrolled international students to continue online due to Covid-19, it did not change the regulation to address new students.

Khurana said the university is working closely with members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation to extend the online exemption to newly admitted students and ensure that this flexibility remains in place for the duration of the public health emergency.

“Unfortunately, we don’t anticipate any change to the policy in time for the fall semester,” Khurana’s letter continued.

Regarding the possibility of offering courses in-person or through a hybrid model that includes in-person instruction as a way to enable first-year international students to obtain an F-1 Visa and attend class on-campus, Khurana said the option was explored, but it was concluded not to be a suitable alternative.

“Given the unpredictability of current government policies and the uncertainty of the Covid-19 crisis, this path could jeopardise both our international students’ ability to enter or leave the United States in the future and our community’s health,” he explained.

“We also concluded that we must protect first-year students from the possibility of coming to the United States only to be asked to return to their home country when local travel restrictions might make that impossible.”

“We concluded that we must protect first-year students from the possibility of coming to the US only to be asked to return”

Harvard’s first-year international students now have a choice of either starting their learning experience from home and taking courses remotely or choosing to defer.

Khurana said the university has extended the deadline for deferral for first-year international students to July 31 and will guarantee all international first-year students housing when they can come to campus safely.

“I recognise that our first-year international students now face a stressful and difficult decision,” he added. “But I am hopeful that brighter days are ahead.”

The Presidents’ Alliance added that it is “deeply disappointed” that ICE has failed to provide updated flexibility for first-time international students.

“We deplore DHS’s continued failure to provide flexible guidance to colleges and universities that would allow them to, with confidence, communicate to newly enrolling international students that they may if they choose proceed with their plans to come to the United States to begin their courses of study,” said Louis Caldera, co-chair and senior advisor of the Presidents’ Alliance.

“International student enrollments were already expected to be down. DHS’s failure to provide this needed flexibility will likely reduce enrollments by tens of thousands of students and cost the affected schools and their local economies millions of dollars.”

Moreover, Caldera said, the lack of definitive guidance seriously undermines the USA’s standing as the destination of choice for international students.

“These students spend months–in some cases years–and tens of thousands of dollars preparing to come study here and we are pulling the rug out from under their feet.

“DHS’s unresponsiveness and lack of flexibility will cause long term damage to the higher education sector and slow our economic recovery.”

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