Federal Rule Aiming to Force International Students to Take In-Person Classes Faces Mounting Opposition

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

A recently published rule from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which would prohibit international students from remaining in the country should their fall coursework operate fully online, has been swiftly met with growing opposition from a number of institutions and organizations. 

Within 48 hours, the order was challenged in court by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), aiming to immediately bar ICE from implementing its policy. The lawsuit argues that the policy threw the country’s higher education system “into chaos” and could result in a dangerous situation for students and schools. The rule, the lawsuit said, “reflects an effort by the federal government to force universities to reopen in-person classes, which would require housing students in densely packed residential halls, notwithstanding the universities’ judgment that it is neither safe nor educationally advisable to do so, and to force such a reopening when neither the students nor the universities have sufficient time to react to or address the additional risks to the health and safety of their communities.” 

Should an institution move to fully online coursework in the fall, it could lead to international students facing an initiation of removal proceedings if they do not transfer to an institution offering in-person instruction for the upcoming semester. 

“The order came down without notice — its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness,” said Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow, in an email to affiliates. “We believe that the ICE order is bad public policy, and we believe that it is illegal.”

Northeastern University announced in a tweet Wednesday afternoon that it was joining the lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE. The university has the third-highest number of international students in the United States.

Additional schools have also pledged their support, with Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton University announcing that they will sign amicus briefs in support of the lawsuit.

“We will pursue this case vigorously so that our international students — and international students at institutions across the country — can continue their studies without the threat of deportation,” Bacow said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Thursday also joined in opposing the directive by issuing a statement arguing that the policy would needlessly inject an immense amount of uncertainty for the higher education system.

“The chilling effect it will have on international student enrollment will inflict significant harm upon American colleges and universities, their students, the business community, and our economy,” said Chamber CEO Thomas J. Donohue. “International graduates of U.S. universities are a critical source of talent for American businesses and the Chamber will consider its legislative and legal options should this policy remain in place. We urge the administration to rethink this ill-conceived policy.”

Also joining in the pushback is Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who expressed concern over the newly issued guidance. 

“A new visa rule would jeopardize the education of nearly one million international students and harm hundreds of colleges and universities, including in Maine,” Collins said in a letter sent to DHS. “This policy must be rescinded to allow students to retain their visas if they attend classes online due to COVID-19.”

With the fall semester rapidly approaching there are many moving parts to the logistics of administering coursework remotely. Recent congressional debate has underscored the growing partisan divide over what it will look like for higher education institutions to reopen safely in the fall — and what is needed from the federal government for that to happen.


Publication Date: 7/10/2020

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