The Trump administration's move to withdraw visas from foreign students whose courses move fully online could result in the loss of thousands of jobs and the $45 billion (Dh165.2bn) that they contribute to the US economy.
The students face deportation if the US universities or colleges they are enrolled in opt to move courses online during the fall semester, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said in a statement on its website on Monday.
To “remain in lawful status” they can transfer to an institution with an in-person education programme or enrol in schools that have adopted a hybrid model – a mixture of online and physical classrooms but only according to certain requirements, the agency said.
“If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings,” it said.
“The US Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programmes that are fully online for the fall semester nor will US Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States.”
The US is the top destination for international students, whose number hit a high of 1.01 million in the 2018 to 2019 academic year, accounting for 5.5 per cent of the US higher education population.
Foreign students contributed about $45bn to the US economy during the same period, an increase of 5.5 per cent over the previous year, the Institute of International Education said in its Open Doors 2019 report.
Their presence also supports 458,290 jobs, directly and indirectly, according to the US Department of Commerce and the NAFSA Association of International Educators.
China had the highest number of students studying in the US for the 10th consecutive year, with 369,548 students enrolled in 2019.
India was in second place with 202,014 students, followed by South Korea with 52,250, Saudi Arabia with 37,080 and Canada with 26,122 students.
In March, ICE allowed foreign students to retain their visa status as many institutions moved classes online when the coronavirus pandemic hit the country.
The US is the country hardest hit by Covid-19, which has infected more than 2.9 million people in the country and killed more than 130,000, according to Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking the disease globally.
The country has registered a sharp rise in infections in recent weeks after President Donald Trump, who is running for re-election this November, pushed to ease movement restrictions and reopen the economy.
Mr Trump, who had often touted the strength of the US economy as one of his biggest successes, has been criticised for his handling of the pandemic and the subsequent economic rout.
The US lost all the jobs created since the 2008 global financial crisis during the first quarter of this year.
“Schools must open in the fall!!!,” Mr Trump tweeted on Monday as he continued to advocate the reopening of the world’s biggest economy.
However, the recent increase in infections in more than 35 US states forced some states to impose stricter rules to curb the spread of the outbreak.
Universities have also moved to curtail the risk for their students and faculties by either bringing a limited number of students back to campuses or shifting to online courses entirely.
It is not clear how many students will be affected by the change in ICE policy. However, it is a major setback for educational institutions that rely on foreign students for revenue.
The states of California and New York each host more than 100,000 students, while Texas, Massachusetts, Illinois and Pennsylvania are each home to more than 50,000 international students, according to the report.
The Trump administration move was roundly criticised by politicians and academics, who called for a reversal of the decision.
“The cruelty of this White House knows no bounds. Foreign students are being threatened with a choice: risk your life going to class in-person or get deported,” Senator Bernie Sanders, who dropped out of the Democratic presidential race earlier this year, said in a tweet.
“We must keep all our students safe.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren, who also ran for Democratic presidential nomination, said kicking foreign students out of the country because their colleges are moving classes online is “senseless, cruel and xenophobic”.
Samantha Power, a former diplomat and an author, who teaches at Harvard University, said in a tweet that the move “makes no sense and [is] unworkable for most college students”.