Thousands of international students at California colleges and universities could be forced to take in-person classes during the coronavirus pandemic or risk having to leave the country.

Under a new rule announced by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), international students will be required to show that they will be taking at least one in-person course during the fall semester. The University of California and the California State University system have both emphatically opposed the change in student visa policy, stating it will hurt international students and the colleges they attend, especially those that benefit from their innovation and research.

The California Community Colleges chancellor estimated that the rule could impact some 20,000 students, and the California State University estimates some 11,300 students at their campuses would be affected. The University of California has not yet announced how many students would be affected, but there are an estimated 40,000 international students at the nine campuses of the UC system.

Students currently in the U.S. could be subject to deportation if they take all online courses, according to the announcement. Students who are currently in their home countries will no longer be able to reenter the U.S. unless their college certifies that some classes will be offered in-person. During the spring and summer semesters, the agency had allowed international students to take more online courses due to the COVID-19 emergency.

The change puts pressure on colleges and universities to offer at least some courses in-person in the fall or risk losing international students and their tuition. It also flies against recent announcements by universities in California and across the country to continue in the fall mostly online. During a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on Tuesday (July 7), CSU Chancellor Tim White said the system’s 23 campuses could go largely virtual for the entire academic year, not just the fall. The only exceptions are a limited number of hands-on courses.

Natalia Marques, from Brazil, is a senior at Sonoma State University on a student visa. (Photo courtesy of Natalia Marques)

Natalia Marques, a senior at Sonoma State University, learned of the new policy via text from a fellow international student. Marques, who lives in an off-campus apartment, has studied economics on a student visa from Brazil since 2016 and pays roughly $20,000 a year in tuition fees.

“How can they do that? We have one month until classes start,” Marques said. “Why didn’t they tell us [at] the beginning of summer break? It was just very frustrating, and I was shocked.”

Since hearing the news, Marques has weighed her options going forward with her education.

“We already took forever to build a life here,” Marques said. “We can’t just move and start from zero. So I don’t think [transferring] would be an option.”

If CSU cannot find a way to help her keep her visa, she said she might have to leave the country.

‘Everything’s so unpredictable’

“I’ll probably go back to Brazil and just continue my studies there,” she said. “But with the current administration, everything’s so unpredictable. My biggest concern is not being able to graduate.”

In an email to international students, Katie O’Brien, Sonoma State’s international student and academic programs advisor, asked students to check in on how they are feeling about the announcement.

“While I’m afraid I don’t have any answers for you now, as this information is so new, please know that Sonoma State, the entire California State University system and beyond will be working hard to interpret just what this guidance means,” O’Brien wrote in the email. “For now, please don’t hesitate to check in, even if it’s just to let me know how you are feeling about all of this.”

All three public college systems are now reviewing their plans for the fall to see how the rule will affect their students and if campuses will be able to offer some in-person classes.

“The announcement is perplexing, given that some degree of remote instruction is necessary for colleges and universities to protect the safety and well-being of their communities and the public at large, while still allowing students to continue their studies,” University of California President Janet Napolitano said in a statement. “Challenges and uncertainty related to COVID-19 are already weighing heavily on students; now is the worst time to burden them further with anxiety.”

The change in student visa requirements adds to concerns that colleges and universities will lose a substantial portion of their income if international students do not return or new students choose not to enroll in California colleges because of COVID-19. International students make up 14.4 percent of students across all 10 UC campuses. International students pay $42,324 a year for undergraduate tuition, more than triple what in-state residents are charged.

Brad Farnsworth, vice president for global engagement at the American Council on Education, which represents 1,700 higher-education institutions, said international students contributed close to $41 billion to the U.S. economy last year, and a decline in international student enrollment could have a big impact on the U.S. economy.

“Any time a statement like what we saw yesterday comes out, it makes people wonder whether the United States is the right place to send their children,” said Farnsworth. “This succession of policy announcements really send a message that the United States is not really a welcoming place for anyone from a foreign country.”

David Elizaga, a student from Spain, is close to  graduating from UCLA. (Photo courtesy of David Elizaga)

David Elizaga, an international student from Spain at UCLA, only needs one more class to be able to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in biomedical engineering. Elizaga fears that if he leaves California and returns to Spain, his plan of entering the biomedical engineering industry will be ruined.

“We’re all human here,” he said. “I don’t think the U.S. government is going to keep everyone out from the United States. That would be something terrible to do.”

* Paula Kiley, a student at Cal State Long Beach, and Marisa Martinez, a student at Cal State Los Angeles, are members of the EdSource California Student Journalism Corps.

Story originally published by EdSource.