A recent announcement from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has prompted universities around the country to scramble to add in-person classes to prevent international students from having to leave the country. The decision means schools in the region are working to understand just what the order might mean for their students.

ICE announced earlier this week that international students in the U.S. on certain visas may have to return to their home countries if their classes this fall are only offered online. The new order does allow for students to take more online classes this fall, as opposed to the typical three-credit allowance, but notes that the student must have some in-person aspect to their education.

“Our international students have to go through so much just to get here in the first place. Adding all of these extra restrictions is not good,” said Amy Senger, assistant director of UND’s International Center. “It's really causing additional stress that they already have to take on as international students.”

The decision may greatly affect universities on the coasts, as many have announced they intend to hold online-only courses in the fall.

Locally, the impact may not be as immediately severe, since most schools in the region are planning to have some in-person classes. Most schools are opting for a hybrid model – some classes online and some in-person – while following health recommendations.

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While that model may mean students will get to attend school in the U.S. for now, many questions remain.

Will the students have to leave immediately if classes go online-only in the middle of the semester? What about travel restrictions? What about the rest of a student’s studies?

It’s causing some uneasiness among foreign students.

John Kim, an aviation student at UND from South Korea who is attending UND on an F-1 visa, said the pandemic has already affected his graduation plans. Now he’s worrying about getting in all of his flight hours while also being concerned about whether classes will go online-only at some point this fall.

“Grand Forks has been my second home away from home since I've been here for four years,” he said. “If it all goes online and I have to leave the country, there's really nowhere to store my belongings, my car. I already leased my apartment so I don't know if I'll be paying all their rent while I'm gone.”

UND has roughly 350 continuing and new students enrolled in the fall who are on F-1 visas. An F1 visa is a non-immigrant visa for those wishing to study in the U.S. They are required to be full-time degree-seeking students.

There are 133 active Student and Exchange Visitor Information System records for the M-1 visas at UND, which are the university’s contracted flight students. This student visa in the U.S. is reserved for international students attending vocational schools and technical schools.

The total number of students on each of those visas may fluctuate depending on how many students ultimately decide to attend UND.

Senger said the university has been working to better understand the order and how it may affect UND students. It is also attempting to understand if there’s a distinction between “online” classes and “remote” classes, which would mean a course that’s typically held in person but is being held from a distance for safety reasons.

“We're still up in the air on a lot of things but we're working very hard to figure out how we can communicate as best as we can to students and help them make the best decisions for what their fall is going to look like,” she said.

Kim came to the U.S. under an F-1 visa in 2013 and attended high school in Fargo before starting at UND in 2016.

He said he’s lucky because if he does have to return home, he is going to South Korea. But some of his friends would be returning to places like Yemen and Syria – countries experiencing war and tumult.

Additionally, if classes do go online and he has to leave the U.S., he expects that he’ll still be required to attend class on time. That means a 10 a.m. class in Grand Forks would start at midnight in South Korea.

Obtaining a student visa can also be a stressful process, which involves a lot of paperwork and then an interview, Kim said. Students have to maintain a certain number of credits during the semester and nearly all of those credits must be taken via in-person courses.

“It’s definitely not an easy process,” he said. “It takes time and you have to really work on it.”

COVID-19 has added another complication to an already tedious process for students, sometimes making it harder for interviews to be scheduled, if at all.

Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration, asking the court to prevent ICE and the Department of Homeland Security from enforcing the new guidance. The University of Minnesota has joined that lawsuit, filing an amicus brief Thursday in support of Harvard and MIT.

U of M President Joan Gabel said the system’s planned hybrid teaching model should “reduce the impact of ICE’s decision on our nearly 6,200 international students systemwide.”

“However, we cannot stand by in good conscience as international students are forced out of the country through no fault of their own,” Gabel said in a statement. “We stand with our international students, and international students across the country, in asking that the ICE directive be overturned immediately.”

The New York Times reported Friday that a federal judge in Boston said that the lawsuit was likely to succeed, but added that the judge put off any decision on whether to block the rules’ implementation until next week, when another hearing is scheduled.

Other campuses

University of Minnesota-Crookston has more than 80 international students from more than 25 countries, all of whom are on the F-1 visa. In the Twin Cities, the U of M campus has 5,787 students on an F-1 visa, 321 on a J-1 visa and 114 students on other international visas.

Crookston Chancellor Mary Holz-Clause said for many international students, the stresses of the pandemic have stretched back to January and February, when the virus was affecting other countries. And even if students wanted to return home this summer, many couldn’t afford to do so.

She said it’s difficult to know what will actually happen this fall, including if classes will have to pivot back to online-only courses, because there are so many unknowns with the virus itself.

“We don't know exactly what our future will be because none of us can predict the outbreak,” she said.

North Dakota State University had 552 enrolled F-1 international students during the spring 2020 semester. The university does not have any M-1 visa students.

Alicia Kauffman, director of International Student and Study Abroad Services at North Dakota State, said her office has been busy reaching out to students and answering questions.

“I think anything with immigration, when there are changes, it's a lot of information to take in,” she said. “So, when we can simplify it for them in a separate email it really helps them to feel more calm and secure in how they'll be OK in the fall semester here”

The Minnesota State System expressed similar sentiment on Wednesday. The Minnesota State System has 3,044 students on the F-1 visa and one student on the M-1 visa, as of the spring 2020 semester. The Minnesota State System is offering a mixture of on-campus, online and hybrid courses.

As of July 8, Mayville State has 20 international students on the F-1 visa. Lake Region State has 28 students on the F-1 visa. Both are planning a mix of in-person and online courses.