MIT, Harvard Sue Admin Over Plans To Boot Int’l Students With All-Online Course Loads

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS - MARCH 12: A view of Building 10 on the campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology on March 12, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Students have been asked to move out of their dorms by ... CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS - MARCH 12: A view of Building 10 on the campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology on March 12, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Students have been asked to move out of their dorms by March 17 due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) risk. All classes will be moved online for the rest of the spring semester. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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July 8, 2020 11:09 a.m.

Harvard and MIT sued the Trump administration on Wednesday, arguing that a rule change barring international students from taking an all-online course load would have disastrous effects.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced the rule Monday with just weeks to go before college students begin the fall semester.

And, since many colleges have transitioned to an all- or mostly-online classes, thousands of visa-holding students could be forced to quickly transfer to schools holding in-person classes — or find themselves forced to leave the country.

“Unless this Court intervenes, these students will be required to make precipitous arrangements to return to their home countries amid a worldwide pandemic that has caused nations to close their borders and has considerably limited international travel options,” attorneys for Harvard and MIT told the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts Wednesday, asking the court to stop the ICE rule.

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“They must abandon housing arrangements they have made, breach leases, pay exorbitant air fares, and risk COVID-19 infection on transoceanic flights. And if their departure is not timely, they risk detention by immigration authorities and formal removal from the country that may bar their return to the United States for ten years.”

In March, as the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis forced many schools to transition online, ICE suspended its typical rules and allowed international student visa holders to take online-only classes. At the time, ICE said the flexibility would continue “for the duration of the emergency,” Harvard and MIT noted, and the President’s national emergency declaration is still in effect.

The rule change would also place undue burdens on faculty and school administrators, Harvard and MIT said. The ICE rule allows some students to take a “hybrid” of in-person and online classes, but only if that’s accompanied by new paperwork that must be filed, for thousands of students across the country, within days of Monday’s rule announcement. The rules have thrown virtually all of American higher education into “chaos,” the plaintiffs said.

Harvard and MIT alleged that the administration had violated the Administrative Procedures Act, which protects against “arbitrary and capricious” actions by Executive Branch agencies and has been at issue in dozens of Trump-era court cases. President Donald Trump has pressured schools to reopen despite the ongoing COVID-19 risk, and the universities said the ICE decision appeared to be motivated in part by that priority.

The lawsuit was hot off the presses, citing an hours-old interview with Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, as proof that “ICE’s decision is designed to force universities to conduct in-person classes.”

On CNN Tuesday afternoon, Cuccinelli said the direction from ICE “is now setting the rules for one semester, which we’ll finalize later this month that will, again, encourage schools to reopen.” 

Immediately, immigration lawyers recognized a crucial admission.

“That will be cited in every lawsuit,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy council at the American Immigration Council.

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