Coronavirus impact: Bay Area couple caught in middle of new ICE rules on student visas

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- International students will be forced to leave the U.S. or transfer to another college if their schools offer classes entirely online this fall, under new guidelines issued Monday by federal immigration authorities.

RELATED: ICE announces students on visas must leave US or transfer to another college if their schools go online-only

The guidelines, issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, provide additional pressure for campuses to reopen even amid growing concerns about the recent spread of the novel coronavirus among young adults. Colleges received the guidance the same day that some schools, including Harvard University, announced that all instruction will be offered remotely.

"We spent the entire day yesterday panicking like, 'What will we do with our apartment? Our puppy?'" said 23-year-old Jasmine Jow, a graduate student at Cal State East Bay.

Her boyfriend, Seohyeon Park is a 27-year-old undergraduate student studying computer science. He is in the U.S. on an F-1 visa from South Korea.

"I still can't believe that this is happening in the U.S. I've never thought that I would be forced to go back (to South Korea), unless I chose to go back," Park said to ABC7 News via Zoom.

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But the new immigration rules leave many international students like Park with just two choices: transfer universities or leave the country.

Under the updated rules, international students must take at least some of their classes in person. New visas will not be issued to students at schools or programs that are entirely online. And even at colleges offering a mix of in-person and online courses this fall, international students will be barred from taking all their classes online.

Cal State classes systemwide are expected to be primarily online in the Fall.

RELATED: CSU campuses closed to students, online instruction to continue through fall semester

On Tuesday, Cal State East Bay released the following statement to ABC7 News on the new ICE rules:

"At Cal State East Bay, we working right now in coordination with the CSU Chancellor's office to get clarity on ICE guidance regarding international students. Since we are still in the process of collecting information, we cannot give definitive information on the impact on our students at this time."

In 2019 International students made up 5% of the undergraduate population at Cal State East Bay. At the graduate level, 24% of students were reported to be international students, according to the school's website.

International students (listed as Non-Resident Aliens) made up 6% of the population of students on all Cal State campuses systemwide.

President Donald Trump has insisted that schools and universities return to in-person instruction as soon as possible. After the guidance was released, Trump repeated on Twitter that schools must reopen this fall.

RELATED: President Donald Trump urges states to consider opening schools before summer

It creates an urgent dilemma for thousands of international students who became stranded in the U.S. last spring after the coronavirus forced their schools to move online. Those attending schools that are staying online must "depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction," according to the guidance.

"I think for international students that the stress and the anxiety that they're feeling is around whether they will be able to even complete their degree," said Susan Popko, Associate Provost International Program, Santa Clara University.

Santa Clara University has committed to exclusively using online learning for graduate students in the upcoming term while plans are still being created for undergraduate instruction. The university has just over 9,000 students with 3,000 in graduate programs. Of the students in graduate programs roughly one-in-three are international students, Popko said.

"This new decision does not allow international students to take into consideration both their safety and their long term educational goals," Popko added.

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Higher education is a major industry and the coronavirus pandemic has called into question the economic challenges that U.S. colleges and universities face unlike any other period in recent years.

It should be noted, international students often pay full tuition for their educations, unable to qualify for federal student aid from the U.S. government that makes higher education possible for many Americans.

Subtracting a substantial number of international students from a university's bottom line could destabilize already tricky math schools are considering as they decide on what instruction will look like for the fall semester.

"This impact is across higher education for all universities, and it's really sort of gutting what universities are able to do," said Popko.

Dozens of U.S. colleges have announced plans to provide in-person classes this fall, but some have said it's too risky. Harvard on Monday said it would invite first-term students to live on campus, but classes will continue to be held online. The University of Southern California last week backtracked on plans to bring students back, saying classes will be held "primarily or exclusively" online.

The new guidance is likely to create "enormous confusion" among colleges as they prepare for the fall, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents university presidents.

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Of particular concern is a stipulation saying international students won't be exempt from the rules even if an outbreak forces their schools to move online during the fall semester. Hartle said it's unclear what would happen if a student ended up in that situation but faced travel restrictions from their home country.

"ICE is clearly creating an incentive for institutions to reopen, regardless of whether or not the circumstances of the pandemic warrant it," he said.

International graduate students at Santa Clara University stuck in limbo this fall would be required to leave the U.S. by September 20, the day before classes start, said Popko. However, students would be able to continue their education by studying remotely.

On Tuesday morning, a social media post circulating online suggested a group of students at UC Berkeley were trying to potentially skate the rules by creating a "decal" student-run class, as permitted by the university. The one-credit class would be for international students and meet once a week in order to allow students to register for an in-person class. It's unclear if this would be a substantial option to circumvent the new rules and if the course is actually in the works.

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