New visa regulations prohibit coursework for some

by Elizabeth Dunbar

New visa regulations designed to clarify what and how much international students’ children and spouses can study is forcing universities across the country to interpret whether classes such as physics are recreational and what a “full course of study” means.

The new regulations, which were published in the Federal Register on Dec. 11 went into effect Jan. 1. The rules state that adult dependents of students with F-1 visas may not pursue a full course of study. In addition, study should be limited to “avocational or recreational.”

Without a specific interpretation of the rules from Immigration and Naturalization Service officials, international student advisers at the University and elsewhere do not have concrete advice to give students and their dependents.

“Right now we’re saying they should limit their enrollment to a single class (per term),” said Theresa Ganglghassemlouei, an adviser at the Minnesota English Center. “That might be the final word, but it could change.”

Ganglghassemlouei said approximately 10 of the 120 English as a second language students at the center had F-2 visas. A few of them had concerns about the new rules after they received letters from the University’s international services office. F-2 visas are for spouses and children of F-1 visa holders who wish to visit or accompany them to the United Staes.

While students with F-1 visas must take classes full time, Ganglghassemlouei said that previously their spouses occasionally could also take English classes full time. Others, she said, were able to pursue a degree part time and take care of children.

Kay Thomas, director of International Student and Scholar Services, said the office sent approximately 70 letters to students with F-2 dependents to tell them about the regulations.

“I think everyone is kind of in a waiting position right now,” Ganglghassemlouei said, adding that repeated e-mail and phone messages to the INS district office in Bloomington have not provided answers about the specific rule.

But Tim Counts, INS spokesman for the Bloomington office, said as long as adult children or spouses of international students are not in school full time, they are not violating the rules.

“Unless they’re taking a full class load, it’s considered avocational or recreational,” Counts said from Washington, D.C., where he is currently serving in the national INS public affairs office.

Counts said a 12-credit load is considered a full course of study. Any individual with an F-2 visa who is already enrolled in a full course of study must apply for a regular student visa by March 11.

“The idea is that if someone is now a full-time student, they must be in the proper visa category to do it,” he said.

Though Counts said he was not aware of any part of the rule preventing dependents from seeking a degree through part-time study, international advisers at Indiana University and University of California-Los Angelus say they have heard different interpretations of the rules.

“It’s difficult because the regulations don’t give a great deal of guidance,” said Christopher Viers, associate dean and director of the international service office at Indiana University.

“There are contradicting interpretations in different areas of the country,” he said, adding that he has heard that the INS in some areas has interpreted “avocational or recreational” to mean someone cannot take a class that could contribute to an academic degree.

“At a university like Indiana, almost any course could lead to a degree,” Viers said.

Viers and Larry Gower, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars at UCLA, said they’re giving students conservative advice.

“We’re waiting to hear more from the INS,” Gower said. “Until then we’re being very conservative about what we tell students.”

Susan Fullenkamp, an international student adviser at the University of Iowa, said an INS spokeswoman was unable to give advisers answers at a recent meeting she attended in Chicago.

“It’s definitely a concern because with all the changes in the system, students want to make sure they maintain status,” Fullenkamp said.

Viers said until universities get more information, individuals will have to make the ultimate decision about what to study.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “It’s just one piece of the many regulations that we’re really troubled by here.”