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University Responses to DHS Restrictions on International Students

community college facade
Reynolds Community College is one of many higher ed institutions grappling with new federal requirements that could send international students to their home countries. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

As coronavirus restrictions are lifted, the Department of Homeland Security modified exemptions for international college students, who now may only remain in the U.S. if they attend in-person classes. 

International students are typically limited to one online course per semester, but a temporary exemption was previously made due to COVID-19 that allowed them to enroll in more online courses for the spring and summer semesters. 

The modified exemptions now say international students are limited to one online course if their school operates under normal in-person classes, but may take more than three credits online if the school adopts a hybrid model of online and in-person learning.

“The majority of international students don't even yet know whether this is going to affect them or not, because they haven't even been told yet whether their classes are going to be online or in person,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of immigrant advocacy at the Legal Aid Justice Center.

Almost immediately after the announcement, universities across Virginia have faced calls to find loopholes around the new regulations or defy them altogether. Sandoval-Moshenberg says the universities’ hands are tied.

“Essentially, if universities don't comply with this, the universities are going to get kicked out of the SEVP [Student Exchange Visa Program] system entirely, which will mean that they can have no more international students, period,” he said.

The Student Exchange Visa Program, which is administered by DHS, oversees that student visa recipients adhere to rules and regulations. Universities require SEVP certification to sponsor international students. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also operates under DHS.

VPM spoke with a recent VCU graduate who wished to remain anonymous due to fears of retaliation as she applies for U.S. residence. She has a work permit and is not directly at risk, but she’s familiar with the concerns many international students now face. 

“I’ve been through a few visa mishaps through the years and it just feels like the world is taken away from under your feet and you don’t know what to do with yourself,” she said.

She came from Italy in 2013 to study art and graduated from VCU in December. She now has a work permit under the Optional Practical Training program, an extension of her F-1 student visa.

“Being able to be here and study here, that was like my dream realized,” she said. “The U.S. just seemed like the best place for us to study where we wanted a little more freely with the promise of a more promising future globally.”

Below is a list of how different Virginia universities have responded to the changes made by DHS.

Virginia Commonwealth University 

In a public statement, VCU President Michael Rao called the new ICE regulations “troubling” and “ill-timed.” VCU has nearly 1,200 international student, 900 of which study under the F-1 visa impacted by the new rules.

VCU has adopted a hybrid model of classes, with both online and in-person options. International students will not be required to leave the country as long as they can register for at least one in-person course. VCU’s last day to add a class is Aug. 24.

The VCU Global Education office has provided F-1 students with more detailed information, as well as a Frequently Asked Questions website.

University of Richmond

The University of Richmond currently sponsors 312 international students under F-1 visas, according to a university spokesperson. The school does not sponsor the M-1 visa, the other student visa impacted by the changed federal guidelines.

The university is offering students a hybrid model of online and in-person courses, and has introduced “regional” study abroad options for international students to attend local partner universities if they are unable to receive a visa or find a flight.

Additionally, university faculty have created independent study options for international students, which can be carried out in-person individually while maintaining social distancing.

The president of the university shared a letter with international students, where he committed to “protect the ability of our international students to live and learn with us.”

Virginia State University

According to a VSU spokesperson, the university enrolled 109 international students for the 2019-2020 academic year. VSU President Makola Adbullah released a letter, in which he calls the new regulations “burdensome” and “unfair.” 

“As valued members of our university communities, our international students should be denied neither access to online course options nor the benefit of measures taken to enhance the health

and safety of the learning and living environments on our campuses,” the letter reads. “A pre-COVID-19 campus setting is no longer an option in the wake of the continued spread of this highly infectious disease.”

Reynolds Community College 

In response to an inquiry from VPM, the college responded with the following statement:

“Reynolds Community College values and supports all of our students. We have approximately 70 international students and are currently reviewing their programs and course options. We are in discussions with the VCCS (the umbrella entity for all 23 Virginia community colleges) and its legal counsel regarding communications and possible options.”

University of Virginia

In an email, a spokesperson for UVA said the university has about 3,000 international students, with whom the school plans to work to ensure they meet new federal requirements to remain in the country.

Jim Ryan, the president of UVA, shared a letter on Twitter saying he is “deeply concerned” about the new federal rules, and that the school is “working with other universities to seek a change in this rule.”

George Mason University

The president of GMU shared a public letter earlier this week, where he states the university sponsors more than 3,000 international students that could be impacted by the modified guidelines.

“Universities will be joining together to explore options for how we can protect this vulnerable population,” the letter reads. “Here at Mason, and across Virginia, conversations are underway as we work to fully understand the new guidance and its impact on our operations and our students.”

Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech sponsors nearly 4,000 international students, according to an article released by the university.

“We are committed to our international students and their important role in Virginia Tech’s unique educational experience and growth as a global land-grant university,” said President Tim Sands in the statement. “Our hybrid instructional model will allow our international students to continue their studies and their important contributions to our campuses and communities.

Tech will host a virtual town hall event on Monday to discuss the modified policies around international students.

James Madison University

According to a university spokesperson, JMU has over 400 international students. In a public statement, the school said it will “continue to support our international students to the greatest extent possible.”