The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has rescinded a new policy guideline that would have prohibited foreign students from staying in the United States if the colleges they attend will only offer online courses this fall.
U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs confirmed on Tuesday afternoon that the federal agency agreed to rescind the guidance to settle a lawsuit filed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston federal court.
Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote in an email to affiliates that he was "delighted" by the settlement, calling it a "significant victory."
"I have heard from countless international students who said that the July 6 directive had put them at serious risk," he wrote. "These students—our students—can now rest easier and focus on their education, which is all they ever wanted to do."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced on July 6 that it is shifting away from an earlier exemption, which allowed foreign nationals to take more online courses than "normally permitted by federal regulation" throughout spring and summer while keeping their student status, as institutions across the country transitioned to online education due to the pandemic. Typically, foreigners are required to take no more than one class online for each semester, as they otherwise risk having their student visa denied or revoked.
Harvard and MIT filed the lawsuit on July 15 against the Homeland Security Department and ICE, arguing that the policy change, which would result in the deportation of foreign students whose courses are taught entirely online, reflects an effort by the federal government to force universities to resume in-person classes amid the pandemic without sufficient time to address potential health risks.
Before reaching a settlement with the suing institutions, the DHS filed a brief on July 13, claiming that allowing foreign nationals to enroll in colleges or programs that are entirely online while residing in the country puts national security at risk.
"A solely online program of study provides a non-immigrant student with enormous flexibility to be present anywhere in the United States for up to an entire academic term, whether that location has been reported to the government, which raises significant national security concerns," the DHS argued in the court filing, adding that the Congress has "repeatedly stressed the importance of monitoring non-immigrant students" over the past 20 years due to national security concerns.
"Students choosing a 100 percent online learning program do not need to be physically present in the United States," the DHS argued.