The Trump administration has rescinded a rule that would have required international students to transfer schools or leave the country if their colleges hold classes entirely online this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced the decision as a court hearing was getting underway on a challenge to the rule by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The suit argued that the policy, announced last week, was created unlawfully and that it contradicted previous guidance from federal immigration officials. The colleges were asking the court to block the rule at least temporarily.
Under the policy, international students in the U.S. would have been forbidden from taking all of their courses online this fall. New visas would not have been issued to students at schools planning to provide all classes online, which includes Harvard. Students already in the U.S. would have faced deportation if they didn’t transfer schools or leave the country voluntarily.
The rule created a dilemma for thousands of foreign students who stayed in the U.S. after their colleges shifted to remote learning last spring.
And it generated huge push back at the University of South Florida, where close to 5,000 international students are enrolled.
Several petitions, including one started by a USF student, circulated on change.org, garnering thousands of signatures. An open letter, signed by tens of thousands of faculty members from universities around the country, condemned the plan, calling it “discriminatory” and “dangerous.”
Among them were hundreds of faculty from Florida universities, including dozens from USF.
In an Instagram post Tuesday, Marcia Taylor, USF’s director of International Services, said the university would update students when federal agencies issued an official reversal to schools. ”THIS IS GOOD NEWS!” the post said.
Nirun Kumaresan, president of American Cultured Desi, a student group focused on South Asian issues at USF, said he was relieved to hear many of the organization’s members would be able to stay and take classes online as coronavirus cases continue to increase.
In some cases, the students’ home countries are not permitting travel right now, one of many situations the new rule had not accounted for.
“As college students, sometimes it feels like our voices get drowned out, but it feels great that we made a difference and we were heard,” Kumaresan said. “This is huge for people at USF and the multicultural community.”
Across Florida, more than 30,000 international students are enrolled in state universities, according to the State University System.
As part of the policy, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told colleges to notify the agency no later than Wednesday if they planned to hold all classes online this fall. Other colleges had until Aug. 1 to share their fall plans with ICE.
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The case was being heard by U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs, who was nominated to the court in 2014 by former President Barack Obama.
The policy had drawn sharp backlash from higher education institutions, with more than 200 signing court briefs supporting the challenge by Harvard and MIT. Colleges say the policy put students’ safety at risk and hurt schools financially.
At least seven other suits had filed by schools and states opposing the policy.
Times Staff Writer Divya Kumar contributed to this report.