White House Reverses Course on New Student Visa Limits

Pedestrians walk through the gates of Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on Aug. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

BOSTON (CN) — The Trump administration on Tuesday abruptly withdrew its plan to require foreign college students to leave the country if they are taking online-only classes, just a week after announcing it.

The about-face was detailed at a hearing in Boston in a lawsuit challenging the policy brought by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs said Tuesday the Harvard and MIT lawsuit is moot as a result of the policy withdrawal.

On July 6, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had issued an order stipulating that foreign students would not be eligible to remain in the country on student visas if all their classes were online. This was a change from ICE’s previous policy allowing online-only classes, issued in March during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

As a result of the administration’s reversal, ICE will return to following the March guidance, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rayford Farquhar confirmed at the hearing.

The controversial order had created a firestorm of protest and litigation. In addition to the lawsuit by Harvard and MIT, a separate federal complaint was filed Monday on behalf of 17 states and the District of Columbia by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. Additional suits have been filed by CaliforniaNew York and Washington as well as Johns Hopkins University and the University of California.

The Harvard lawsuit was supported by 326 other colleges and universities, 26 cities and towns, 18 business organizations, 16 educational and professional societies, 16 student government organization, and four unions, including the American Federation of Teachers.

Had the policy been upheld in court and enforced, it would have resulted in dramatic economic losses to colleges and college towns because many of the country’s roughly 1 million international students would have withdrawn.

In Massachusetts alone, some 77,000 foreign students add more than $3.2 billion to the state economy each year, according to Healey, a Democrat.

The Chronicle of Higher Education criticized the July 6 order in a scathing editorial, calling it “ignorant and ominous” and a form of “extortion” aimed at requiring colleges to fully reopen in the fall or lose their international students.

“It creates a host of problems — pedagogical, financial, ethical — for higher education, an industry that many conservatives, particularly Trumpian conservatives, absolutely love to hate,” the editorial stated.

Burroughs, a Barack Obama appointee, did not explain at Tuesday’s hearing what led to the policy withdrawal, but the judge commended the lawyers on both sides for their hard work in reaching a deal. It’s possible that the government sensed she was inclined to rule in Harvard’s favor.

Burroughs attained prominence in January 2017 when she put a hold on President Trump’s travel ban. Another one of her most notable rulings also involved Harvard – in October 2019, she ruled in favor of the university in a suit claiming that its admission policies discriminated against Asians.

The judge’s father went to Harvard College. Burroughs herself applied to Harvard but was rejected. She graduated from Vermont’s Middlebury College in 1983.

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