Nation & World

U.S. abruptly drops new visa rules for international students

Guidelines faced wide opposition led by Harvard and MIT as schools nationwide craft plans for health and safety

6 min read

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Facing widespread opposition led by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the federal government on Tuesday abruptly dropped its plans to deport or deny entry to international students at U.S. colleges and universities offering virtual instruction only this fall.

The announcement came during a brief hearing at Boston’s federal courthouse over a lawsuit the two schools filed last week to block the order, a move that drew support from colleges and universities, state and local governments, and the nation’s leading technology companies.

“The directive had disrupted all of American higher education. I have heard from countless international students who said that the July 6 directive had put them at serious risk. These students — our students — can now rest easier and focus on their education, which is all they ever wanted to do,” Harvard President Larry Bacow wrote in an email to the University community. “While the government may attempt to issue a new directive, our legal arguments remain strong and the Court has retained jurisdiction, which would allow us to seek judicial relief immediately to protect our international students should the government again act unlawfully.”

Federal Judge Allison D. Burroughs confirmed that both parties had agreed to the decision by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to rescind its proposal, disclosed a little more than a week ago, and continue the March guideline allowing these students to remain in the country and study remotely.

The ICE policy shift would have required international students to take at least one class in person. Officials at Harvard, MIT, and other institutions of higher education said that with the school year only weeks away, the policy could have thrown into disarray the complex plans they had developed to ensure the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and surrounding communities amid the continuing pandemic.

The government has long limited the number of online courses international students can take and remain in residence in the U.S. But after the pandemic, ICE had loosened those restrictions. The colleges and universities said that the problem wasn’t simply the restoration of curbs but the suddenness of the change, especially at a time when COVID-19 cases are surging in much of the country.

More than 200 public and private institutions of higher education — including all seven other members of the Ivy League — had either filed briefs supporting Harvard and MIT’s effort, or their own lawsuits, including one by the University of California system and another by a group of 19 schools in the West that included Stanford University.

Twenty-six cities, towns, and counties from across the country — from Boston, Cambridge, and New York in the East to Las Cruces, N.M., and Los Angeles in the West — wrote in a brief filed June 13 that, if implemented, the decision would have a “direct and deep impact” on their communities.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed supporting documents on behalf of tech companies, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, and Salesforce.

Last week, California became the first state to file suit to block the action. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office is spearheading a legal action joined by her counterparts in 16 other states and the District of Columbia, called the ICE rule “senseless.”

“Massachusetts is home to thousands of international students who make invaluable contributions to our educational institutions, communities, and economy,” Healey said in a statement on Monday announcing the suit. “We are taking this action today to make sure they can continue to live and learn in this country.”

The court filings outlined the toll the ICE directive would take on students, higher education, and the U.S. economy.

“This ICE policy will have far-reaching detrimental effects on our students and communities,” said Nathan O. Hatch, the president of Wake Forest University, in a statement that accompanied an amicus brief representing 180 institutions of education filed Friday by the industry group the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. “We stand with our students, who greatly enrich our campuses, and we will fight for their opportunity to pursue their education with us,” said Hatch, whose school will conduct online as well as in-person courses this fall.

A group of student government leaders from 16 colleges and universities argued that the policy would renege on the promise of America that attracts talented students to the U.S.

In its July 8 filing, Harvard and MIT said ICE’s surprise announcement was reckless and put the lives of countless students, faculty, and staff at risk. Both institutions said the federal proposal also failed to consider their months spent planning for the 2020‒2021 academic year in accordance with ICE’s March 9 guidance, which was “effective for the duration of the emergency,” and which allowed international students’ visas to remain active even if the pandemic forced them to take classes online. Harvard and MIT recently announced their plans to continue using online instruction this fall, with MIT planning some in-person classes.

Several students also filed statements in support of Harvard on Monday but did so anonymously, citing fears they could face “retaliation by immigration authorities or harm in my home country or elsewhere.”

One rising Harvard sophomore was recently forced to stay in Belarus and forfeit his expensive return airline ticket to the U.S. when airport officials told him “F-1 visa holders are not included in the list of approved travelers.” Later, he was told by a consular official he would need a letter from Harvard stating he would be attending classes in person in order to return to the U.S. With Minsk seven time zones ahead of Cambridge, taking classes online from Belarus, he said, would be “very difficult.”

An unidentified MIT engineering graduate student who is collaborating with NASA said their research would come to halt they were forced to return to their home country.

“Lebanon is currently experiencing an extreme economic crisis and famine. I would not be able to access the basic tools to complete my work online, including electricity and reliable internet. Returning to Lebanon would halt my progress on my graduate studies and would negatively impact the team that I work with. NASA is counting on our work, and it would be very disruptive if I could not continue this fall,” they wrote.

Additionally, the student expressed fear for their safety amid the ongoing crisis in Lebanon, and worried about the “risk of COVID-19 infection to my parents if I come into contact with them after a long international flight.”

“Higher education in the United States seeks and attracts the best and the brightest students from around the world,” Bacow wrote. “They strengthen our universities immeasurably, and we aim to provide them with the best education possible — in a virtuous cycle that benefits all of us.”