Colleges and their international students across the country are breathing a collective sigh of relief after the Trump Administration this week abruptly reversed a rule that would have forced foreign students to face deportation had universities held strictly virtual classes this fall to help stem the spread of COVID-19.
U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs at the start of a hearing on Tuesday in Boston announced immigration authorities and Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — which sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement this month — had reached an agreement. Both universities had declared the government policy endangered the lives of students and faculty and would have forced schools to reopen this fall amid a global pandemic.
ICE, Burroughs said, determined it would rescind the rule and reinstate regulations announced in March allowing international students here on visas to continue strictly online courses through the duration of the national emergency. International students participating in the Student and Exchange Visitor Program are permitted to attend only one online course per semester under normal circumstances.
The White House referred Legal Examiner questions about the policy change to ICE and DHS. Neither responded to requests for comment.
The July 6 announcement by ICE that at least a million immigrant students would face removal from the country panicked the higher education community, which was finalizing plans to provide largely remote learning for students to keep them safe. The policy spurred at least 18 states, dozens of other colleges and tech companies, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and PayPal, to sue.
Colleges and students across the country are celebrating the settlement.
“We at MIT are enormously grateful that so many are paying attention and talking about the important role international students play in our education, research and innovation enterprises here in the United States,” President L. Rafael Reif said. “These students make us stronger, and we hurt ourselves when we alienate them. 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 policy making, especially now, with more humanity, more decency — not less.”
International students, who are ineligible for financial aid, accounted for roughly $41 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
One of those students who can now sleep easier is Aassa Shrestha, 22, a nursing student from Nepal in her junior year at West Coast University in Dallas.
“I am very happy with the news,” Shrestha said. “I’m glad they understood what their administration’s decision would have done to us.”
Shrestha decided to study nursing in Dallas after an earthquake rocked her home country in 2015 and killed nearly 9,000 and injured nearly 22,000. She plans to return home upon graduation with the skills she acquired in the U.S., she said.
“It was after the earthquake I realized a lot of things that are important are not taught there. … I thought America was the best option,” Shrestha said, adding the July 6 ICE directive was cruel and left her afraid of what the future held.
Professors who were left scrambling trying desperately to accommodate their international students by providing in-person classes, risking their own health, rejoiced at the news.
Kyla McMullen is a computer science professor at the University of Florida, which has about 5,000 international students enrolled in degree programs, according to the school’s International Center Dean Leonardo A. Villalón.
“The government and everyone is able to see what we see,’’ McMullen said, “which is that we tremendously value our international students and we need them here and meaningfully contributing to the campus community.”