Under immigration regulations, international students are required to maintain F-1 student status. This includes, in most cases, maintaining a full course of study in the U.S., with limitations on the number of credits that can be taken online. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has issued guidance in response to preventative measures enacted by universities against the spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). In its guidance, ICE has indicated it will provide international students with flexibility in maintaining student status, including lifting limitations on online coursework, and permitting students to remain in active F-1 status when a university temporarily closes.
Universities with students in F-1 status must email the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) Response Center at SEVP@ice.dhs.gov to advise ICE of transitions to online coursework and temporary closure within 10 business days of the decision. Submissions to SEVP should include the information listed in ICE’s Broadcast Message to SEVIS users found here. An optional template has been provided by ICE to use when giving the required notice to SEVP here.
ICE guidance also advises F-1 students engaged in practical training to consult with their employers to seek alternative ways to maintain their authorized employment, such as teleworking. Students who will work from a new location, such as a home office, must, as always, timely report such a change to their Designated School Official (DSO).
In addition to monitoring students’ activities inside the U.S. to ensure continuing compliance, universities should be aware of U.S. entry restrictions applicable to F-1 students. Specifically, the China Travel Proclamation, Iran Travel Proclamation, European Schengen Area Proclamation and United Kingdom and Ireland Travel Proclamation suspend entry to certain non-U.S. citizens who were physically present in these areas during the 14-day period preceding their entry to the U.S. Although F-1 students subject to these travel bans will not be able to enter the U.S., ICE has indicated that such students will temporarily be allowed to count online classes towards a full course of study even if they are outside the U.S. when their school closes temporarily, but offers online instruction or another alternative learning procedures. In addition to interfering with the travel of students, travel bans may also halt the entry of university employees, and those requiring visas to be admitted to the U.S. may face additional delays due to the closure of local consular posts.
It is likely that additional adaptions will be made to U.S. immigration policies and procedures in response to COVID-19. The Department of Homeland Security’s guidance for international students and universities can be found here.
Immigration Considerations for Employers in Response to COVID-19
The U.S. government has recently implemented COVID-19 travel bans that suspend entry to certain non-U.S. citizens who were physically present in China, Iran, Schengen countries, the UK and Ireland during the 14-day period preceding their entry to the U.S. Additionally, certain consular posts have reduced or temporarily suspended visa services. The Department of State has compiled a list of consular post websites for country-specific information concerning COVID-19 here. It is likely that additional travel restrictions and consular post closures will arise in response to COVID-19. As such, employers and foreign national employees should carefully consider the risks of international travel at this time. Additionally, employers should explore options to extend or change the status of sponsored foreign national employees in cases where the employee would normally depart and make a renewal application at a consular post or port of entry.