Tag Archives: F-1 student

SEVP Modifies COVID-19 Exemptions for F-1 and M-1 Students: In-Person Classes Required in Fall 2020

On Monday, July 6, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced changes to the exemptions for F-1 and M-1 students taking online classes due to the pandemic. Under the new policy, international students may not remain in the U.S. to take a full online course load in Fall 2020 without accruing unlawful presence and being subject to removal (deportation) proceedings. F-1 and M-1 visas or admissions to the U.S. in such status will not be given to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester.

What is the New Policy?

The SEVP is part of the U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). A July 6 announcement on ICE’s website lists the changes to temporary exemptions for the fall 2020 semester:

1. Nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States. The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States. 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. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.

2. Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools operating under normal in-person classes are bound by existing federal regulations. Eligible F students may take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online.

3. Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools adopting a hybrid model — that is, a mixture of online and in person classes — will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online. These schools must certify to SEVP, through the Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,” certifying that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program. The above exemptions do not apply to F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students pursing vocational degrees, who are not permitted to enroll in any online courses.

Schools are instructed to update their information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) within 10 days of the change if they begin the fall semester with in-person classes but later switch to only online classes, or a nonimmigrant student changes course selections, and as a result, ends up taking an entirely online course load.

What are the Effects of the New Policy?

F-1 students pursue academic coursework while M-1 students pursue vocational coursework in the United States.

U.S. federal regulation at 8 CFR 214.2(f)(6)(i)(G) states that F-1 students may take only one online class or 3 credits per session, term, semester, trimester or quarter that count toward their degree or full course of study requirement. 8 CFR 214.2(m)(9)(v) states M-1 students may not count online courses toward a full course of study.

An online course is one that does not require physical attendance for classes, examination or other activities integral to course completion. It is offered primarily through the use of television, audio, or computer transmission.

Previous COVID-19 Exemptions

On March 9, 2020, SEVP issued guidance titled Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and Potential Procedural Adaptions for F and M nonimmigrant students. This prior policy allowed F and M students to continue studies by taking online courses in the spring and summer semesters to meet federal regulations. It allowed them to take more online courses during the COVID-19 pandemic than what is permitted by federal regulations.

There was no requirement prohibiting a full online course load or any other restrictions for F and M students enrolled and already in the U.S. The SEVP permitted schools to change their procedures to comply with state or local state health emergency rules. Schools were not required to give prior notice of these changes and only had to report changes to SEVP within 10 business days.

Updated COVID-19 Exemptions

As of Fall 2020, the updated policy makes in-person classes mandatory for F and M students to meet the full-time course study requirements. This is a shift from the more flexible COVID-19 exemptions that SEVP gave to schools and students for the spring and summer semesters of 2020.

Nonimmigrant Students in the United States

Current F and M students may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States without violating the law. If students find all their courses will be online, they must leave the country or seek to maintain their status such as by requesting authorization for a reduced course load or switching to a school that offers in-person classes. Students who fall out of status and accrue unlawful presence are subject to being put in removal proceedings before an Immigration Court.

Normal In-Person Classes

If the school offers normal in-person classes, F students must comply with federal regulation by taking only one online class or 3 credit hours per session, term, semester, trimester or quarter.

Hybrid Model with In-Person and Online Classes

If the school offers a hybrid model with a combination of in-person and online classes, F students may take more than one online class or three credit hours online.  What this really means is that the class includes a mix of online lectures or activities and in-person lectures or activities. Hybrid schools must certify on the Form I-20 that the program is not fully online, the student is not taking an entirely online course load, and the student is taking the minimum number of online classes for Fall 2020 to make normal progress.   

No Online Classes for F-1 Students in English Language Training Programs or M-1 Students

None of the exemptions for taking online classes, including the hybrid model, are allowed for F students in English Language training programs or for M-1 students pursuing vocational degrees.  The regulations at 8 CFR 214.2(f)(6)(i)(G) and 8 CFR 214.2(m)(9)(v) do not permit online classes for such students.

[UPDATE, July 15, 2020: U.S. district judge Allison D. Burroughs announced on Tuesday, July 14, that the Trump Administration had agreed to back down in a lawsuit over the policy filed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Previous COVID-19 exemptions — which allow foreign students to remain in the U.S. to study even if their classes have all moved online — will continue to apply. The new policy will apply only to incoming students.]

Nonimmigrant Students Outside the United States

The U.S. Department of State (U.S. Embassies and Consulates) will not issue F and M visas to applicants who plan to attend schools that offer courses entirely online in Fall 2020.

Even if they have a valid F or M visa, students will not be admitted to the United States by CBP if all the program-related courses are online only for Fall 2020.

Form I-20 Updates

F and M students must get an updated Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, stating the school is not operating in full online courses mode and the student is not taking full online courses for Fall 2020 semester. This information goes in the Remarks field of the I-20.

SEVP plans to re-issue I-20s for Fall 2020 within 21 business days of the announcement (i.e. by August 4, 2020). Priority will be given to fall 2020 students arriving from outside the United States.

Current F-1 students with approved Curricular Practical Training (CPT) during program studies or with approved Optional Practical Training (OPT) or STEM OPT after program completion may remain in active status and continue their training.

Continuing F and M students, whose schools offer only online courses for Fall 2020, can keep active status if they stay outside the United States and take full online courses to meet visa requirements. They must get a new I-20 indicating they are abroad taking a full course load as the school is offering only online courses for Fall 2020.

Conclusion

The updated policy is not fully clear and schools are awaiting further guidance from SEVP, ICE. The student visa restrictions were introduced soon after the pandemic-related suspension on H, L and J visa and certain immigrant visas.

With the ending of the temporary exemptions that were granted back in March, F and M students may not lawfully remain in the United States if their school goes fully or, in some cases, partly online. To maintain status or to receive a visa or entry to the United States, the student has to take in-person classes or, in the case of F-1 students, classes that involve a mix of in-person and online attendance.

Schools that planned to operate remotely, in COVID-19 times, might need to rethink their strategy to keep their F and M students. Schools that do not at least offer a hybrid model of in-person and online classes will face a significant loss in revenue (tuition and fees from international students).

The updated policy could serve as a catalyst for colleges and universities to reopen campuses, as states continue to lift restrictions that were implemented to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. There is flexibility in that schools may use hybrid models that are not 100% online to keep F-1 students.

Some international students might not want to bear exposure to the virus by attending classes in person. But, under the new rule, this is unavoidable if they wish to maintain their status or to obtain an F-1 or M-1 visa and be admitted to the United States for the Fall 2020 semester.

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This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each legal case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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USCIS Policy Change Makes Nonimmigrant Students and Exchange Visitors More Likely to Accrue Unlawful Presence Toward 3/10-Year Bar and Permanent Bar

Starting on August 9, 2018, U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) and the U.S. Department of State (U.S. Consulates and Embassies) began applying a stricter policy to calculate unlawful presence for F students, M vocational students and J exchange visitors in the United States.  The policy makes nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors (as well as their dependents) who fall out of status more likely to face the 3/10 year-bar to re-entry under INA 212(a)(9)(B), following departure from the U.S. It also makes them more vulnerable to the permanent bar under INA 212(a)(9)(C), caused by illegal re-entry or attempted illegal re-entry following accrual of unlawful presence of more than one year.

The August 2018 USCIS policy and DOS Policy state that F, M and J nonimmigrant visa holders begin to accrue  “unlawful presence”  the day after they violate the terms of their status.

With this policy change, it is no longer required that students and exchange visitors — who are admitted to the U.S. for duration of status (D/S) — be given notice of the status violation by USCIS or an Immigration Judge in order for unlawful presence to begin.  The removal of this procedural safeguard creates harsher penalties to nonimmigrants who fall out of F, M or J status, even when the violation is accidental, inadvertent, or due to extraordinary circumstances beyond their control.

What is the 3/10-Year Bar Under INA 212(a)(9)(B)(i)? 

3-Year Bar

Section 212(a)(9)(B)(i)(I) of the Immigration & Nationality Act (INA) states the 3 year bar to re-entry applies if you were unlawfully present in the U.S. for more than 180 days, but less than one year, and then depart the U.S. prior to commencement of removal proceedings.  The U.S. government adds up all the days you were unlawfully present in the U.S. in a single ongoing period or stay (i.e. continuous period of unlawful presence).

The 3-year bar does not apply if you depart the U.S. after the Notice to Appear in removal proceedings is filed with the immigration court, following service of the NTA on you. But leaving the U.S. while you are in removal proceedings or being issued a removal order carries other immigration consequences.

10-Year Bar

Section 212(a)(9)(B)(i)(II) of the INA states the 10 year bar to re-entry applies if you were unlawfully present in the U.S. for one year or more, and then depart the U.S. The U.S. government adds up all the days you were unlawfully present in the U.S., even if they were from different periods or stays (i.e. the aggregate period of unlawful presence).

There are certain exceptions to the unlawful presence rules. For example, any period of unlawful presence prior to April 1, 1997 – the date the law went into effect – does not count toward the 3 year/10 year bars. Furthermore,  a minor who is unlawfully present does not accrue any time toward the 3 or 10 year bar until he turns 18.

What is the Permanent Bar Under INA 212(a)(9)(C)(i)? 

Section 212(a)(9)(C)(i)(I) of the INA inflicts a permanent bar if you illegally enter or attempt to illegally enter the U.S. following accrual of more than 1 year of unlawful presence on or after April 1, 1997.

The accrual of unlawful presence is cumulative. For example, if you were unlawfully present for 6 months in 3 different periods (i.e. 18 months total), and you then re-enter the U.S. illegally, you face the permanent bar.

Unlike with the 3/10-year bar under INA 212(a)(9)(B), there are no exceptions for minors when it comes to the permanent bar. So if you were under 18 when you came to the U.S., you accrued unlawful presence of more than 1 year, you left, and then returned to the U.S. without inspection, you face the permanent bar.

What is Unlawful Presence? 

The term “unlawful presence” is defined in section 212(a)(9)(B)(ii) of the INA. It refers to a person who “is present in the United States after expiration of the period of stay authorized by the Attorney General or is present in the United States without being admitted or paroled.”

To accommodate unexpected changes in academic programs and plans, the U.S. government normally admits F, M, and J nonimmigrants for duration of status (D/S) instead of up to a specific date.  This means nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors may remain in the U.S. as long as they maintain their status, i.e. have a full course of study or remain in the exchange program, avoid unauthorized employment or other unauthorized activities, and timely complete their academic or exchange program or obtain an extension.

What are the Effects of the Unlawful Presence Policy Change? 

Until the policy change went into effect, USCIS and the DOS interpreted the law to require notice of a status violation to persons admitted for D/S in order for unlawful presence to begin.  A formal finding of a status violation is made by USCIS, an Immigration Judge, or the Board of Immigration Appeals in the context of an application for an immigration benefit (e.g. change of status or extension of status request) or in removal proceedings, whichever is earlier.

A prior USCIS May 6, 2009 memorandum stressed “the accrual of unlawful presence neither begins on the date that a status violation occurs, nor on the day on which removal proceedings are initiated.” The memo noted,”…it is important to comprehend the difference between being in an unlawful immigration status and the accrual of unlawful presence (‘period of stay not authorized’). Although these concepts are related (one must be present in an  unlawful status in order to accrue unlawful presence), they are not the same.” 

With the policy change, USCIS no longer distinguishes between falling out of status (including minor and technical violations) and accruing unlawful presence. Rather than considering unlawful presence to begin accruing the day it denies an application or petition for immigration benefits, USCIS will now find that unlawful presence began retroactive to the date it determines a status violation occurred.  The DOS updated its Foreign Affairs Manual to incorporate this policy change and guide consular officers in determining whether the unlawful presence bar applies. 

Under the new policy, “unlawful presence” will begin the day after a status violation occurs, even if the person has no idea that s/he has fallen out of status. Examples include accidentally engaging in unauthorized employment; relying on erroneous advice by a Designated School Official (DSO) regarding reduced course load; and missing work for 90 days or more due to a serious injury while on Optional Practical Training (OPT).

USCIS will apply the policy retroactively; nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors who are found to have violated their status before the new policy took effect will also begin to accrue unlawful presence as of August 9, 2018.

F, M or J nonimmigrants who failed to maintain status before August 9, 2018, start accruing unlawful presence based on that failure on August 9, unless they already started accruing unlawful presence on the earliest of the following:

  • The day after USCIS denied the request for an immigration benefit, if USCIS made a formal finding that they violated their nonimmigrant status while adjudicating a request for another immigration benefit;
  • The day after the Form I-94, Arrival/Departure Record, expired, if the F, M or J nonimmigrant was admitted for a date certain; or
  • The day after an immigration judge ordered them excluded, deported or removed (whether or not the decision is on appeal).

F, M or J nonimmigrants who failed to maintain status on or after August 9, 2018, start accruing unlawful presence on the earliest of the following: 

  • The day after the F, M or J nonimmigrant no longer pursues the course of study or the authorized activity, or the day after he engages in an unauthorized activity;
  • The day after completing the course of study or program (including any authorized practical training plus any authorized grace period)
  • The day after the Form I-94 expires, if the F, M or J nonimmigrant was admitted for a date certain; or
  • The day after an immigration judge orders them excluded, deported or removed (whether or not the decision is on appeal)

When determining whether an F, M or J nonimmigrant accrued unlawful presence and was no longer in authorized stay, USCIS will consider information related to the person’s immigration history, such as:

  • information in the systems available to USCIS
  • information in the person’s record, including the person’s admissions concerning his immigration history or other information discovered during adjudication of an application or petition
  • information obtained through a Request for Evidence or Notice of Intent to Deny, if any

Conclusion

USCIS’ unlawful presence policy change, in combination with its updated guidance on Notices to Appear and Requests for  Evidence, will have dire consequences for nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors, as well as their dependents.

While there is a 212(d)(3) nonimmigrant waiver and a Form I-601/INA 212(a)(9)(B)(v) immigrant waiver for the 3/10 year unlawful presence bar, they come with certain eligibility standards and they are not granted in every case. There are also limitations to obtaining a Consent to Reapply (I-212 waiver) to be excused from the permanent bar under INA 212(a)(9)(C).

New policies are not as binding as changes in the law passed by Congress, or regulations issued through notice-and-comment rulemaking. Still, unless the policy change is rescinded or is struck down by federal courts, it reflects how USCIS and the DOS will calculate unlawful presence for F-1, M-1 and J-1 nonimmigrants and their dependents (F-2, M-2 and J-2) as of August 9.

For more information, read our related articles:

Updated Policy Makes It Easier for USCIS to Deny Petitions and Applications Without First Issuing a Request for Evidence (RFE) or Notice of Intent to Deny (NOID)

Updated Notice to Appear (NTA) Guidance Requires USCIS to Initiate Removal Proceedings In More Cases

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This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each legal case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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