Letter to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Regarding International Student Enrollment Flexibility

On February 5, 2021, the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration sent a letter to Acting Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Tae Johnson Secretary regarding COVID-19 enrollment flexibility for first-time international students.

Letter to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Regarding International Student Enrollment Flexibility

February 5, 2021

Tae Johnson
Acting Director
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
500 – 12th St., SW
Washington, D.C. 20536
John Trasviña
Principal Legal Advisor
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
500 – 12th St., SW
Washington, D.C. 20536

RE: Expanding Guidance on Flexibility for International Students

 Dear Acting Director Johnson and Principal Legal Advisor Trasviña:

On behalf of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, we write to bring to your attention urgent matters of concern to our alliance of over 500 college and university leaders. International students make immense contributions to our academic programs, campuses, and communities. Yet, our institutions face significant complexities as they work to recruit, admit, and support their international student populations. Thus, the issues below are most urgent and time-sensitive in impacting our ability to support our international students and scholars in our communities.

 After a concerted advocacy effort by the higher education community, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stated that international students should “continue to abide” by emergency pandemic guidance that allows them to take all or some of their courses online. We strongly support this guidance because without it, a large number of international students still in the United States during the pandemic would have had to take classes in person or leave–neither tenable as COVID cases rise and the pandemic is still prevalent.

However, DHS has still not issued additional guidance that would allow all international students, including those who were not already enrolled during the initial COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020 but have since enrolled or who will enroll, to enter and remain in the United States. Current guidance stipulates that if a new international student’s courses are online, they are prohibited from entering the United States or must depart the country. This policy is a substantial problem for programs with students living in different time zones.

Member institutions inform us that they have enrolled students studying remotely in numerous countries, who must literally wake up in the middle of the night or during other unreasonable hours to attend classes online. This barrier is exacerbated in situations where students reside in countries with deficient or lacking infrastructure, leading to a lack of a reliable internet access. The strong preference of these higher education institutions would be for these international students to be permitted entry into the United States to continue or start their studies.

Therefore, we urge Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to update its Frequently Asked Questions for SEVP Stakeholders about COVID-19 (August 7, 2020) guidance (and any related or supplementary interagency guidance) by:

  1. Explicitly allowing initial international students to enter the country, as well as permitting existing students to remain in the United States when enrolled in online-only courses (as opposed to currently only allowing students enrolled in hybrid courses to enter);
  2. Clarifying that the five month absence rule for F-1 is suspended, particularly in response to some institutions of higher education being ensure of how to treat international students for over five months;
  3. Expressly permitting international students (including new/initial students) to enter and lawfully remain in the United States while pursuing programs of study that are not 100 percent remote coursework. Regulatory allowances for a temporary drop below a full course load should continue to be available; and
  4. Directing U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to uniformly and immediately implement the existing and supplementary guidance.

As done in the past during emergent circumstances, we also urge DHS to issue a Federal Register Notice immediately granting Special Student Relief, particularly in light of COVID-19; and will gladly provide technical assistance in support of this request. We provide sample Special Student Relief templates in Appendix  A – Special Student Relief (SSR) Notice Follow Up. The SSR package would address the reality that international students and exchange visitors are facing severe economic hardship, that Optional Practical Training (OPT) work authorization processing has been severely delayed, that some schools and exchange programs may have to cancel classes or move to fully online learning, necessitating a solution for initial international students seeking admission to the United States, and that students may need to temporarily drop below a full course of study or engage in employment beyond the normal 20-hour limit on both on- and off-campus employment.

We thank the new administration for its recent actions to affirm the importance of immigrant and international populations in the United States and for your continued partnership with the various universities and colleges in the United States. We applaud the Executive Actions on rescinding the travel bans, protecting and fortifying DACA, committing to diversity and equity, and reviewing and reducing barriers to the legal immigration system. We also commend the administration’s decision to pause and review all pending rules. We hope we can find the right mix of flexibility in this space to ensure all students pursuing a higher education during this pandemic can continue to meet the goals of rebuilding a strong economy, contributing to economic innovation, and obtaining a cutting-edge education.

If you have any questions regarding these priorities and requests, please contact Jose Magaña-Salgado at or (480) 678-0040. We stand ready and eager to support you and your team with further details on all of these priorities above.[1]


Miriam Feldblum

Executive Director


[1] The nonpartisan, nonprofit Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration brings college and university presidents and chancellors together on the immigration issues that impact our students, campuses, communities and nation. We work to advance just immigration policies and practices at the federal, state and campus level that are consistent with our heritage as a “nation of immigrants” and the academic values of equity and openness. The Alliance is composed of over 500 presidents and chancellors of public and private colleges and universities, enrolling over five million students in 43 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico.