Trump reverses ICE ban on foreign students taking classes only online

A rule that would've stripped students of their visas unless they took in-person classes has been rescinded.

Alexandra Garrett Associate Editor
Alexandra is an associate editor on CNET's Performance Optimization team. She graduated from Marymount Manhattan College in New York City, and interned with CNET's Tech and News teams while in school. Prior to joining CNET full time, Alexandra was a breaking news fellow at Newsweek, where she covered current events and politics.
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The Trump administration has backtracked on a rule that would've required international students whose universities remain online-only amid the coronavirus pandemic to transfer schools or leave the US. The decision came Tuesday, following multiple lawsuits as well as a public outcry by colleges, states and tech giants across the US.

The decision to rescind the Immigration and Customs Enforcement rule was announced at the start of a hearing over a federal lawsuit filed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Federal immigration authorities said they'd agreed to "return to the status quo" in place prior to the ICE's July 6 announcement of the rule. The decision provided relief to many foreign students whose colleges plan to use online-only learning in the fall because of COVID-19. Such students would've been at risk of losing their visas and being deported.

ICE, which oversees the US Student Exchange and Visitor Program and issues foreign students academic and vocational visas, had said last week that its new rule was that the "US Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester."

Harvard and MIT filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and ICE last Wednesday to try to stop the change.

"ICE's action leaves hundreds of thousands of international students with no educational options within the United States," the suit said. "Just weeks from the start of the fall semester, these students are largely unable to transfer to universities providing on-campus instruction, notwithstanding ICE's suggestion that they might do so to avoid removal from the country."

The US Chamber of Commerce and tech companies including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter announced their support of the Harvard-MIT suit in a friend-of-the-court brief filed Monday. The 19 tech associations and companies backing the brief argued that ICE's restrictions on foreign students would be harmful to the economy. 

"These students contribute substantially to the US economy when they are resident in the United States," the companies wrote. "Without international students, American educational institutions face a sudden loss of critical mass -- jeopardizing their ability to maintain their standards of excellence; produce research that helps keep US businesses on the cutting edge of innovation; and provide the training that makes American students a strong talent pool for their future employers." 

Also Monday, 17 states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration with the aim of blocking ICE's rule to revoke foreign students' visas if they take a full online workload in the fall. The lawsuit alleges a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

"The Trump administration didn't even attempt to explain the basis for this senseless rule, which forces schools to choose between keeping their international students enrolled and protecting the health and safety of their campuses," Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who was spearheading the lawsuit, said in a statement. Healey described the rule as a "cruel, abrupt and unlawful action to expel international students amidst the pandemic." 

Under ICE's July 6 guidelines that've now been rescinded, international students who were already in the US and were planning to take online classes in the fall would've been forced to transfer to a university offering in-person instruction or risk deportation. If students chose to leave the US, ICE said they could continue online learning from their home country. 

The agency's regulation banned a full course load of online classes, but ICE allowed international students to finish their spring semester remotely because of the pandemic.

Many schools are grappling with how to reopen after having switched to remote learning in the spring. Harvard said it'll allow 40% of undergraduates on campus but continue online classes. California State University, the nation's largest four-year public university system, said in May that classes across its 23 campuses will primarily be virtual for the fall semester. 

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