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Trump administration rescinds rule for international students with only online courses

The rule would have forced student visa holders to leave or transfer amid the coronavirus pandemic

Two students leave the campus of Harvard University on July 8, 2020.
Two students leave the campus of Harvard University on July 8, 2020. (Anik Rahman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Trump administration said it will rescind its new rule barring international students from staying in the country if they take an entirely online course load this fall because of the pandemic.

The announcement was made Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Boston, where a lawsuit against the policy filed last week by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology was scheduled to be heard. According to court records, attorneys for the administration informed the court it had reached a resolution and that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that oversees the international student and exchange visitor program, would rescind the July 6 guidance “on a nationwide basis.” The proceeding lasted just a few minutes. 

ICE’s guidance had noted that all student visa holders whose university curricula were only offered online “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,” the agency added, “they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.” 

The rule immediately sparked chaos among international students. Many of them scrambled to determine how they could stay in the United States and continue their education. It also drew harsh critique from top universities and triggered a litany of lawsuits. 

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were first to sue, but several other schools soon joined the fight. Princeton, Cornell, Brown and the University of Pennsylvania were among more than 180 universities that filed amicus briefs in support of the Harvard/MIT lawsuit. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the University of California filed separate lawsuits last week, along with one filed by seven graduate students at California institutions. 

On Monday, two separate lawsuits were filed by more than a dozen states seeking to block a new rule. The first lawsuit, filed by 17 states and the District of Columbia, claimed that the new ICE guidance was “senseless and cruel” because it “fails to consider the tremendous costs and burden” such an abrupt reversal would impose on foreign students and higher educational institutions.

“For many of our international students, remote learning in the countries and communities from which they come would impede their studies or be simply impossible,” the states wrote in their complaint.

The second lawsuit was filed by the state of New York, which accused the Trump administration of using the ICE directive as part of its effort to reopen all schools, “callously ignoring prevailing public health guidelines” being considered by college campuses nationwide. 

The state of California had sued last week. 

Student visas have strict rules that typically forbid an online-only class load, but ICE had made an exemption for international students whose schools were limiting in-person classes starting in March, due to the pandemic. Once the administration formally rescinds its policy, that prior guidance exempting these students will remain in place, according to the court’s announcement Tuesday.

Neither ICE nor the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the agency, immediately returned calls Tuesday seeking comment.  

But reaction came quickly from lawmakers. 

“Rescinding the guidance on international students was the right call,” said Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, in a tweet. “America should seek to encourage the best and the brightest minds to study in our country, not force them out.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., praised colleges, students and everyone who vocalized their opposition to the guidance.

“This despicable and cruel rule should’ve never been proposed in the first place. Thanks to everyone who raised their voice and fought back. Because of you, international students can stay,” she said on Twitter.

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