Harvard and MIT sue over new international student rule

Rule leaves some international students wondering if they're welcome in the U.S., MIT president says
By: | July 8, 2020
Harvard University and MIT say a new Trump administration guidance on online learning could put international students at risk. (GettyImages/Klaus Vedfelt)Harvard University and MIT say a new Trump administration guidance on online learning could put international students at risk. (GettyImages/Klaus Vedfelt)

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the Trump administration Wednesday over a new ICE rule that would deport international students if their institutions offer only online learning.

The rule announced this week permits foreign students to remain in the country if they transfer to another college or university that provides in-person or hybrid instruction.

Otherwise, international students would have to leave the U.S. and risk not being allowed to return. Students who don’t comply could face deportation, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow wrote on the university’s website.

“The order came down without notice—its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness,” Bacow wrote. “It appears that it was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others.


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Bacow, who also noted that the U.S. is currently seeing record numbers of COVID-19 cases, said Harvard and MIT are seeking a temporary restraining order to block the rule.

Harvard announced earlier this week that it would bring about 40% of its students back to campus for the fall semester and that most courses would take place online.

In a message to campus, MIT President L. Rafael Reif criticized ICE for providing only scant information about the rule or how it would be enforced as colleges and universities roll out their plans for the 2020-21 academic year.

“Our international students now have many questions—about their visas, their health, their families and their ability to continue working toward an MIT degree,” Reif wrote. “Unspoken, but unmistakable, is one more question: Am I welcome?”

ICE faces more pushback on international students

University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan on Wednesday called the ICE guidance counterproductive and “cruel to valued members of our community.”

“The guidance released Monday by Immigration and Customs Enforcement creates immense confusion and instability for thousands of international students at the University of Massachusetts, not to mention the million-plus international students across the country,” Meehan said in a statement.

He urged the agency to return to its spring policy that suspended rules prohibiting online enrollment.

“This decision comes at the worst possible time for these students and the university,” Meehan said. “UMass campuses, like their peers around the country, have developed comprehensive and flexible plans to serve our 75,000 students, including more than 7,000 international students.”


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Should a college have to move from some in-person to fully remote learning, international students would face the challenge of having to return home to countries, such as those in the European Union, that have closed their borders to travelers coming from the U.S., Meehan said.

Criticism from outside higher ed

The American Psychological Association also announced its opposition to the rule, saying it “creates an undue burden and potential public health risk.”

“It will force colleges and universities into an impossible choice— to reopen prematurely or risk losing invaluable international students and their contributions—and unnecessarily endanger both the physical and mental well-being of all students and faculty,” the association’s president, Sandra L. Shullman, said in a statement.

Read the full lawsuit below:


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