The US has withdrawn a rule that required international students, including hundreds of thousands of Indians, to leave the country if their schools held classes entirely online amid the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) restrictions — a move that was welcomed by students who were at risk of being deported, their families, and universities that had vehemently opposed the decision.
The Trump administration on Tuesday conveyed its decision to a federal US district court that was hearing a challenge by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), joined by hundreds of other schools and colleges, and some states.
Under the policy, international students in the US would have been prohibited from taking all 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 US would have faced deportation if they didn’t transfer to schools with in-person instructors or leave the country voluntarily amid the pandemic.
The US is the worst-hit country by the infectious disease, with the virus infecting more than 3.5 million people and killing about 140,000.
“The government has agreed to rescind the July 6 2020 policy directive and the frequently asked questions, the FAQs, that were released the next day on July 7,” district court judge Allison D Burroughs said just as the hearing started. “They also agreed to rescind any implementation of the directive,” the judge added.
According to a recent report of the Student and Exchange Visitor Programme (SEVP), 194,556 Indian students were enrolled at various academic institutions in the US in January. The issue was raised by Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla during an online meeting with US undersecretary of state for political affairs David Hale.
Foreign students earlier said international travel restrictions in place due to the pandemic made it increasingly difficult for them to return to their home countries, while those outside America were uncertain if they will be able to travel back.
On Tuesday, US district judge Allison Burroughs said federal immigration authorities agreed to pull the July 6 directive and “return to the status quo”.
With the policy rescinded, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will revert to a directive from March that suspended typical limits around online education for foreign students.
Harvard president Lawrence Bacow called it a “significant victory”.
“While the government may attempt to issue a new directive, our legal arguments remain strong and the Court has retained jurisdiction, which would allow us to seek judicial relief immediately to protect our international students should the government again act unlawfully,” Bacow said in a statement.
MIT’s president said his institution also stands ready “to protect our students from any further arbitrary policies”.
“This case also made abundantly clear that real lives are at stake in these matters, with the potential for real harm,” president L Rafael Reif said in a statement. “We need to approach policy making, especially now, with more humanity, more decency — not less.”
ICE did not immediately comment on the decision.
The surprise decision was welcomed by students across who would be affected by the ICE policy.
Omkar Joshi, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, said: “This is a really good development and we are relieved after the order.” Though the university opted for a hybrid model of teaching, “it was still not clear to students how many courses they had to take under the new directive, or how many hours they had to spend on the campus,” Joshi added.
Tanujay Saha at the Princeton University said that though he was not personally impacted by the July 6 directive because he finished most of his coursework as a doctoral student and was focused on research work, the work in his lab came to a “standstill” as people could not “work for a day or two” in the aftermath of the order.
Immigration officials issued the policy last week, reversing the earlier guidance from March 13, telling colleges that limits around online education would be suspended during the pandemic. University leaders believed the rule was part of President Donald Trump’s effort to pressure the nation’s schools and colleges to reopen this fall even as new virus cases rise.
The policy drew sharp backlash from higher education institutions, with more than 200 signing court briefs supporting the challenge by Harvard and MIT. Colleges said the policy would put students’ safety at risk and hurt schools financially.
The US admits an estimated one million international students every year and they generate around $41 billion worth of economic activity and support 450,000 jobs, according to the American Council on Education, which represents US colleges and universities. Incomes generated from foreign students are critical to the financial health of many US colleges.
Seventeen US states and the District of Columbia, along with top American IT companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, joined the MIT and Harvard in the US District Court in Massachusetts in seeking an injunction to stop the entire rule from going into effect.
The lawsuit alleged that the new rule imposes a significant economic harm by precluding thousands of international students from coming to and residing in the US, and finding employment in fields such as science, technology, biotechnology, health care, business and finance, and education, and contributing to the overall economy.
In a separate filing, companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, along with the US Chamber of Commerce and other IT advocacy groups, asserted that the ICE directive would disrupt their recruiting plans
The American Council on Education, which represents university presidents, applauded ICE’s pullback of the rule. The group called the policy “wrongheaded” and said it drew unprecedented opposition from colleges.
“There has never been a case where so many institutions sued the federal government,” said Terry Hartle, the group’s senior vice president. “In this case, the government didn’t even try to defend its policymaking.”
Elizabeth Warren, Democratic senator and former presidential candidate, tweeted: “I’m glad the Trump admin agreed to rescind this dangerous & xenophobic #StudentBan policy after we demanded they reverse course & MA schools sued them. I’ll keep fighting to make sure it stays that way… When we fight back, we can make a real difference.”
International students enrolled in academic programmes at US universities and colleges study on an F-1 visa and those enrolled in technical programmes at vocational or other recognised non-academic institutions, other than a language training programme, come to the US on an M-1 visa.
(With inputs from AP and PTI)