Harvard University and MIT fight proposed limit on foreign students' visas

International students whose universities are not planning in-person classes would be required to return to their home countries. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES, AFP) - Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said Wednesday (July 8) that they had filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over a directive that would strip foreign students of their visas if their coursework was entirely online.

The White House measure, announced Monday, was seen as an effort to pressure universities into reopening their gates and abandoning the cautious approaches that many have announced they would adopt to reduce transmission of the coronavirus.

"The order came down without notice - its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness," Harvard's president Lawrence Bacow said in a message to the university community.

"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."

The universities say in their lawsuit that the order would harm students "immensely," both personally and financially. It describes the order as "arbitrary and capricious."

The plaintiffs ask that the court issue a temporary restraining order and "permanent injunctive relief" preventing the policy being enforced.

They also ask that the order be declared unlawful, that their fees are covered, and that they receive any other relief that the court deems appropriate.

The lawsuit, filed in a Massachusetts district court, lists the defendants as the US Immigration and Custom Enforcement (Ice) and the United States Department of Homeland Security.

The effect of the Trump administration directive may be to dramatically reduce the number of international students enrolling in the fall. Together with delays in processing visas as a result of the pandemic, immigrant advocates say the new rules, which must still be finalised this month, might discourage many overseas students from attending US universities, where they often pay full tuition.

But the concern that their campuses could become coronavirus clusters has prompted many universities to adopt measures to reduce exposure, from requiring masks in classrooms to limiting social activities to reducing the number of students invited back to campus. Many have announced a hybrid approach that would provide some in-person classes but offer a significant amount of coursework virtually.

Such changes could put foreign students' visas, known as F-1 visas, at risk under the new rules.

International students whose universities are not planning in-person classes - which is currently the case at schools including Harvard and the University of Southern California - would be required to return to their home countries if they are already in the United States. Those overseas would not be granted permission to enter the country to take online coursework here.

Mr Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said in an interview on CNN that the administration was providing more flexibility for international students than in the past, when they could take only one online course to qualify for visas. Now they can take more, as long as at least some of their instruction is in person.

"If they're not going to be a student or they're going to be 100 per cent online, then they don't have a basis to be here," Mr Cuccinelli said, adding, "They should go home, and then they can return when the school opens."

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