The Trump administration has rescinded a rule that would have required international students to transfer schools or leave the country if their colleges hold classes entirely online next semester because of the coronavirus pandemic.
United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced the decision as a court hearing was getting under way on a challenge to the rule by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
US District Judge Allison Burroughs in Massachusetts said the US government and the two universities that sued over the measure had come to a settlement that would roll back the new rules and restore the previous status quo.
Burroughs was nominated to the court in 2014 by former President Barack Obama.
Students walk near the Widener Library in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts [File: Charles Krupa/AP Photo]
The suit brought by Harvard University and MIT argued that the policy was created unlawfully and that it contradicts previous guidance from federal immigration officials. The colleges had been asking the court to block the rule at least temporarily.
Under the policy, international students in the US would have been forbidden from taking all of their courses online when classes restart. New visas would not be issued to students at schools planning to provide all classes online, which includes Harvard. Students already in the US would face deportation if they did not transfer schools or leave the country voluntarily.
The rule created a dilemma for thousands of foreign students who stayed in the US after their colleges shifted to remote learning due to the coronavirus pandemic.
As part of the policy, ICE had told colleges to notify the agency no later than Wednesday if they plan to hold all classes online this term. Other colleges would have until August 1 to share their fall semester plans.
The policy had drawn sharp backlash from higher education institutions, with more than 200 signing court briefs supporting the challenge by Harvard and MIT. Colleges say the policy puts students' safety at risk and hurts schools financially. At least seven other suits have been filed by schools and states opposing the policy.
On Monday, 17 states and the District of Columbia filed their own lawsuits, arguing the rule is politically motivated and an attempt by the Trump administration to force universities to hold in-person classes when classes resume for the new school year.
Immigration officials issued the policy last week, reversing earlier guidance from March 13 telling colleges that limits around online education would be suspended during the pandemic. University leaders believe the rule is part of Trump's effort to pressure the nation's schools and colleges to reopen in August and September, even as new virus cases rise.
A student wearing a mask while walking through the Yard at Harvard University, after the school asked its students not to return to campus after spring break and said it would move to virtual instruction for graduate and undergraduate classes, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US [Brian Snyder/Reuters]
Harvard and MIT argued that immigration officials violated procedural rules by issuing the guidance without justification and without allowing the public to respond. They also argued that the policy contradicted ICE's March 13 directive telling schools that existing limits on online education would be suspended "for the duration of the emergency."
The suit noted that Trump's national emergency declaration has not been rescinded and that virus cases are spiking in some regions.
Immigration officials, however, said they told colleges all along that any guidance prompted by the pandemic was subject to change. They said the rule is consistent with existing law barring international students from taking classes entirely online. Federal officials also said they were providing leniency by allowing students to keep their visas even if they study online from abroad during the fall semester.