US President Donald Trump holds papers during an American Workforce Policy Advisory Board Meeting in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on June 26, 2020. Photo: AFP

Close on the heels of curbs on H1B US visas, the Trump administration has now imposed restrictions on foreign students enrolled in American universities. This move is expected to adversely affect Indians studying in the US, who form the second-largest group of foreign students after those from China. According to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program report, 251,290 Indian students went to the US in 2017 and 2018, while 478,732 Chinese students studied in the country during the same period.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency within the US Department of Homeland Security, has stated that during the fall 2020 semester students holding F-1 and M-1 visas and attending schools offering courses online only will not be allowed to remain in the US.

International students enrolled in academic programs at US universities and colleges study on an F-1 visa and those enrolled in technical programs at vocational or other recognized non-academic institutions, other than a language training program, enter the US on an M-1 visa.

Because the US has the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world, many colleges are transitioning to online courses to ensure the safety of both students and staff. The fall semester begins in early September and by that time America’s death toll due to the pandemic is projected to cross 170,000.

At Harvard University, all course instruction will be delivered online, including for students living on campus. But President Trump seems keen on the resumption of in-person classes. “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” he tweeted on July 6.

The new announcement leaves the door open for “hybrid” models of online plus in-person classes as a way for students to remain in the US. It says, “Non-immigrant 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.”

The move has been criticized by US academics. “This is a wildly horrible idea in the middle of a global pandemic,” tweeted Ellie Murray, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University.

Brad Farnsworth, vice president of the American Council on Education, said the announcement caught him and many others by surprise. “We think this is going to create more confusion and more uncertainty,” said Farnsworth, whose organization represents about 1,800 colleges and universities, CNN reports.

Harvard University president Larry Bacow said in a statement Monday evening, “We are deeply concerned that the guidance issued today by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement imposes a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem, giving international students, particularly those in online programs, few options beyond leaving the country or transferring schools.”

Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, pointed out that the curbs on international travel will leave many of these students stranded.

“The bigger issue is some of these countries have travel restrictions on and they can’t go home, so what do they do then?” she added.