Harvard and MIT sue Trump administration over new policy on international student visas

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are suing the Trump administration over Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s recent rule requiring international students to take in-person classes in order to remain in the US. The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court in Boston, says that ICE’s actions were “arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion” and asks the court to block the guidelines’ enforcement.

ICE’s guidelines, announced on July 6th, stated that international students must take in-person classes at their schools in order to remain in the US, and they could face “immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings” if they take a fully online course load. New international students at online-only schools won’t be issued visas, per ICE, and current students who have already left the US will not be permitted reentry.

“The ability to provide remote education during the pandemic is of paramount importance to universities across the country,” reads the lawsuit.

The guidelines suggest that impacted students could transfer schools to avoid deportation, despite the fact that many fall semesters will begin in a matter of weeks. The document also states that international students will not be allowed to take online courses from their home countries and maintain “Active Status” unless their schools are online-only.

ICE gave universities a July 15th deadline to submit an “operational change plan” if their classes were moving entirely online. Schools that are adopting a hybrid model will have to certify that all students on F-1 visas (numbering thousands per university, in some cases) are taking in-person classes by August 4th.

The announcement came very soon after a number of universities, including Harvard, announced that they would offer classes fully online. Even more have proposed a hybrid model of some kind.

This isn’t the only lawsuit that immigration authorities are likely to face over this ruling. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey stated yesterday that her office would be suing in a statement posted to Twitter.

Students who hold F-1 visas are typically only allowed to count one online class per term toward their course of study. Immigration authorities made an exception to this rule in March when COVID-19 forced many institutions to move all instruction online.

“ICE’s action leaves hundreds of thousands of international students with no educational options within the United States,” the universities wrote. “Just weeks from the start of the fall semester, these students are largely unable to transfer to universities providing on-campus instruction, notwithstanding ICE’s suggestion that they might do so to avoid removal from the country. Moreover, for many students, returning to their home countries to participate in online instruction is impossible, impracticable, prohibitively expensive, and/or dangerous.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven countries around the world to impose travel restrictions. Currently, the Trump administration is barring foreign nationals who have recently been in China, Iran, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, and the Europe Schengen area from entering the US.