US drops threat to deport foreign students taking online classes

The White House has rescinded a rule that would have forced foreign students to leave the country if their university courses go online only, after being sued by several leading US universities. 

The judge presiding over a lawsuit lodged by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Tuesday said US Immigration and Customs Enforcement would revert to its earlier guidance and allow overseas students to remain in the US even if their courses were wholly virtual.

The move to restrict the visas of international students had attracted widespread criticism from universities, business groups and large companies. Several top US universities filed briefs in support of Harvard and MIT’s lawsuit, as did more than a dozen technology companies including Facebook, Google and Microsoft. 

Separately, attorneys-general representing 18 states and the District of Columbia filed a pair of lawsuits seeking to block the rule, which threatened affected students with deportation if they did not leave the country or transfer to a university with physical classes.

MIT president L Rafael Reif said he had been “inspired by the outpouring of support for our position that flooded in from higher education and other organisations so quickly.”

Mr Reif said international students played an important role in research and innovation in the US. “These students make us stronger, and we hurt ourselves when we alienate them,” he said. “This case also made abundantly clear that real lives are at stake in these matters, with the potential for real harm. We need to approach policymaking, especially now, with more humanity, more decency — not less.”

In a statement, the US Chamber of Commerce said it was “pleased” to see the “ill-conceived” policy rescinded.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, who had filed a separate lawsuit against the US administration’s new guidance on Monday, said the reversal was “welcome news”. “Politics should have never been a factor in our nation’s public health decisions, but as long as the president continues down this path, we will continue to use every legal tool at our disposal to stop him,” said Ms James.

Colleges and universities across the US have been grappling with how to safely return students to campus amid worries that moving too quickly could spark a fresh wave of infections.

Restrictions on travel and delays in the visa issuance process caused by the closure of consulates and embassies overseas have already hit non-US students hoping to study at American universities, leaving many unable to travel.

The White House’s plan to tighten visa restrictions for foreign students came after it suspended a range of other guest worker visas affecting scientists, doctors, au pairs and some seasonal workers, among others. Mr Trump has also suspended green cards, which offer permanent residency, citing the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs as coronavirus ravages the US economy. 

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to request for comment.

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