U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced a rule Monday that prohibits international students from staying in the U.S. on their student visas if their college opts to hold courses entirely online.

The order will affect F-1 and M-1 visa-holders, forcing students to either take in-person classes or risk deportation. Students in colleges teaching entirely online are told to either transfer schools or leave the country.

ICE’s announcement comes after multiple universities, including Harvard and Princeton, have moved fall courses entirely online for some students because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Soon after the new guidelines were announced, Harvard President Larry Bacow spoke out in support of students and criticized the administration’s decision.

“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,” Bacow said in a statement.

While some students will be able to return to their home countries if necessary, others face pandemic-induced travel restrictions that make return difficult. Chinese students, the largest international population in the U.S., may not be able to find tickets home with the country’s restrictions on commercial flights.

The new rules from ICE place the burden on students, despite them having no control over their institution’s fall plans, according to former immigration judge J. Traci Hong.

“If their schools decide to go all online because COVID-19 is in the upswing and in-person classes are more dangerous, the students may fall out of legal status and become removable because of the school’s actions,” Hong said.

Monday’s announcement comes after a slew of anti-immigration policy changes the Trump administration ordered using the pandemic as the justification. Immigration advocates say the new rule will not only hurt international students, but domestic ones as well.

“A lot of universities are totally dependent on international students to survive. That’s particularly true in science and engineering departments where Americans are not enrolling in sufficient numbers to keep departments going,” Greg Siskind, a Tennessee-based attorney said.

Colleges are also concerned about the unclear ramifications of the rule.

“We think this is going to create more confusion and more uncertainty,” Brad Farnsworth, vice president of the American Council on Education, said. “What we were hoping to see was more appreciation for all the different possible nuances that campuses will be exploring.”

Sources: NPR 07/06/20; Buzzfeed News 07/06/20; CNN 07/06/20; Harvard 07/06/20

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