‘Disturbing and cruel.’ Universities blast new visa rule for international students

A new U.S. immigration policy announced Monday, which threatens to revoke visas for certain international students if they are not taking in-person classes, is stirring panic and confusion and causing some universities to push back with lawsuits. The policy states that international students who are currently enrolled in online-only programs will need to leave the country immediately or transfer to a school with in-person classes to legally continue their education. The announcement doesn’t explicitly distinguish undergraduate and graduate students—creating uncertainty among science and engineering graduate students who are focused on research and had no plans to enroll in courses this fall.

The policy “is cruel to international students and damaging to America’s scientific leadership,” Sudip Parikh—CEO of AAAS (the publisher of Science Careers)—said in a statement released today. “We urge the administration to reconsider and rescind this guidance.”

Boston University student Mounika Vutukuru, an F-1 visa holder from Canada in the final year of her Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering, first heard about the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announcement on social media. The rule “essentially makes international students dispensable in this pandemic,” Vutukuru says. “When I saw the news, it started to dawn on me how depressingly coercive this decision is: We have to face the virus regardless of health and safety.”

Vutukuru may be spared that risk in the end. Her school’s international student office informed her Monday that she would be unaffected because she has completed her coursework and only registers for research credits—but she worries the new U.S. policy is too vague to trust that interpretation. “The way it’s written, it’s all based on online versus in-person classes,” she says. “It’s unclear where Ph.D. students who have completed their coursework will fall.”

When U.S. universities shut down earlier this year due to the spreading coronavirus, they moved spring and summer courses to a fully virtual format.

By Jyoti Madhusoodanan for ScienceMag
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