Fredrik Ackander is a junior soccer player at Dalton State College. The 2019 conference soccer scholar-athlete of the year is from Vasteras, Sweden. He first came to the United States three years ago and played his first two seasons at Andrew College in southwest Georgia before transferring to Dalton.
Before the coronavirus shut everything down, Ackander had a deal in place for the summer to play with the Chattanooga Red Wolves. Once everything shut down, flight prices skyrocketed above $2,000, so Ackander was stuck on campus while many of his teammates and classmates headed home.
"I was also afraid of going home because I didn't know if I'd be able to come back," Ackander said.
Now, the federal government says if college classes are online-only in the fall, Ackander and thousands of other international students will be forced to go back home.
"It's the craziest thing," Ackander said. "If I stayed here the whole time, they would find me and they would deport me."
International students attending U.S. colleges that will be online-only in the fall semester cannot stay in the country to do so, according to new regulations released Monday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Under the new rules, the State Department will not issue visas for students who are enrolled in a college that has moved to online instruction. At the same time, U.S. Customs and Border Protection will not allow them to enter the country.
A release from ICE's Student and Exchange Visitor Program said "active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status."
If not, students may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, "the initiation of removal proceedings." The rule also says international students won't be exempt even if an outbreak forces their schools online during the fall term.
The rule applies to international students with F-1 and M-1 non-immigrant visas, which allow non-immigrant students to pursue academic and vocational coursework, respectively.
The new rule has faced sharp criticism since it was announced Monday and is seen as an effort to pressure universities into reopening their doors as the coronavirus continues to rapidly spread across the country.
Jodi Johnson, vice president of student affairs and enrollment services at Dalton State, said Tuesday most of the international students who were attending in the spring had already traveled back home when Georgia and the rest of the nation shut down to slow the spread of the global pandemic.
"For a number of them, the window to either get out of the U.S. or get back in their country was a short one because of flights or borders closing," she said. "There are all these other variables outside of even classes that they have to consider to get back home."
Dalton State had between 45 and 60 international students in the spring, or about 1 to 2% of the school's enrollment.
The college is also on track to offer face-to-face instruction, so as it stands now, the new ICE rule doesn't apply to the school. Like anything these days amid the coronavirus pandemic, that is subject to change at the drop of a hat.
"We're continually monitoring the situation," Johnson said. "If we go completely online, say two weeks into the semester, they would all have to leave the country. Again, I'm hoping that once the fall semester starts that there might be a little leeway or grace period."
Ackander said he is fortunate in navigating the situation thanks to family at home and public services such as the internet in his home country.
"Luckily for me I have a family back home, but not everyone is in that situation," he said. "Not everyone has the privilege of having Wi-Fi. Many people have already made arrangements for their living situation."
Ackander said the issue is a another reminder of the uphill battle international students face.
"It's a privilege to be here, but being an international student can feel like you're not really wanted here," he said.
Jerold Hale, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said UTC enrolls about 200 international students.
"We value the contributions our international students make to our classes and to the campus," Hale said in a statement. "I am confident we can provide our international students with a sufficient number of face-to-face classes to comply with the policy and keep students on track for degree completion."
Many colleges and universities are worried their campuses could become coronavirus clusters, which has prompted many to adopt measures to reduce exposure.
The Chronicle for Higher Education is tracking about 1,100 colleges across the U.S. and most (59%) are planning for an in-person fall semester. About 25% are considering hybrid methods while 8% have said they will offer online-only instruction.
In Georgia, faculty members took the lead in making sure students and staff were as safe as possible for the fall semester.
The University System of Georgia had previously told schools they should "strongly encourage" students and others to wear masks, but said that the system's 26 universities couldn't mandate face coverings for their 330,000 students despite concerns about COVID-19 transmission.
The 26 universities recently announced they were planning to hold face-to-face instruction starting in the fall.
Faculty groups at Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, Augusta University and the University of West Georgia had sent letters protesting, as did the United Campus Workers of Georgia, a union that represents employees at multiple universities.
On Tuesday, the University System of Georgia reversed course due to the public pressure and will mandate campus-wide mask wearing.
Contact Patrick Filbin at email@example.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.