In a rare and swift immigration policy reversal, the Trump administration on Tuesday bowed to snowballing opposition from universities, Silicon Valley and 20 states and abandoned a plan to strip international college students of their visas if they did not attend at least some classes in person.
The policy, which would have subjected foreign students to deportation if they did not show up for class on campus, had thrown the higher education world into turmoil at a time when universities are grappling with whether to reopen campuses during the coronavirus pandemic.
The loss of international students could have cost universities millions of dollars in tuition and jeopardized the ability of U.S. companies to hire the highly skilled workers who often start their careers with an American education.
Two days after the policy was announced on July 6, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed the first of a litany of lawsuits seeking to block it.
On Tuesday, minutes before a federal judge in Boston was to hear arguments on their challenge, the judge, Allison Burroughs, announced that the administration had agreed to rescind the policy and allow international students to remain in the country even if they are taking all their classes online.
The government has argued that the requirement that students take at least one in-person class was actually more lenient than the rule that had been in effect for close to 20 years which required foreign students to take most of their classes in person.
But that rule was temporarily suspended on March 13, when Trump declared a national emergency and campuses across the country began shutting down, with classes moving online. On July 6, the government made its announcement that foreign students could not remain in the United States if their studies were entirely online.
“If they’re not going to be a student or they’re going to be 100% online, then they don’t have a basis to be here,” Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said in an interview on CNN after the policy was announced. “They should go home, and then they can return when the school opens.”
Each year, about 1 million international students enroll in American universities. They contribute $41 billion to the economy annually and support more than 458,000 jobs.
In addition to Harvard and MIT, the attorneys general of 20 states, including Massachusetts and California, also sued, charging that the policy was reckless, cruel and senseless. Scores of universities threw their support behind the litigation, along with organizations representing international students.
The pressure grew on Monday, when more than a dozen technology companies, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, also came out in support of the lawsuit, arguing that the policy would harm their businesses. Then on Tuesday, 15 Republican members of Congress signed a letter urging the Trump administration to restore its previous policy on international students.
Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., who had organized the letter, applauded the Trump administration’s “right decision” to cancel its plan. “These hardworking students are the best and brightest from their countries, and they help our communities grow both culturally and economically,” he said.
The policy about foreign students was one of a number of measures President Donald Trump has taken to advance his agenda on immigration, using the coronavirus pandemic and the need to protect the country from health threats as justification.
The administration has also stopped processing green cards for applicants abroad; closed the southwestern border to nonessential travel, allowing only Americans and legal permanent residents to enter while barring asylum-seekers; and banned the entry of thousands of foreigners on work visas.
The universities said in their court challenge to the latest policy that “by all appearances,” the government’s attempt to force international students to study on campus had also been a political move, calculated to advance the Trump administration’s agenda to force universities to reopen their gates with in-person classes.
They said forcing students to return to their home countries would in many cases separate them from families in the United States, returning them to places where they no longer had a home. In some cases, they would be living under the thumb of repressive regimes, which policed or restricted internet access.
Many international students from Asian countries would have to contend with a time difference that would mean taking classes between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m., if they had internet access.
In court filings, universities said that some arriving students already had been barred from entering the country by immigration officials at airports who told them that their institutions were going online.
After the announcement Tuesday that the policy had been rescinded, university officials praised the decision and warned that they would be prepared to go back to court should the administration make any further moves to restrict the ability of international students to study online when necessary.
“This is a significant victory,” Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, said in a statement. “The directive had disrupted all of American higher education. I have heard from countless international students who said that the July 6 directive had put them at serious risk. These students — our students — can now rest easier and focus on their education, which is all they ever wanted to do.”
L. Rafael Reif, president of MIT, said the swift opposition was evidence of “the important role international students play in our education, research and innovation enterprises here in the United States. These students make us stronger, and we hurt ourselves when we alienate them.”
The University of Southern California, among the universities with the largest population of international students, said in a statement that it was “thrilled that the government backed down and rescinded its rule that would have revoked visas for international students.”
USC, which led a coalition of 20 universities and colleges on the West Coast that sued the government, said its international students “deserve the right to continue their education without risk of deportation.”
After the announcement of the now-rescinded policy this month, international students had begun scrambling to figure out next steps. Some said they booked flights home. Others held out hope that their colleges might add classes with an in-person component to enable them to remain in the United States.
Willow Cai, a rising junior at USC who is from China, said she had rushed last week to register for a golf class to ensure she had an in-person class. After hearing the administration had rescinded the new policy, she expressed relief and outrage at the government’s initiative.
“I’m like really emotional right now. The July 6 directive should never have happened,” said Cai, 20, a cinema major. She also said she planned to drop the golf class.
“All we want is to continue our education in peace during a global pandemic,” she said Tuesday in Los Angeles. “It seems this administration has no concern for international students beyond our wallets.”
Alexander Auster, 22, a second-year student at George Washington University Law School from Berlin, had already signed a lease on an apartment for the next academic year when the policy was announced. He had arrived in the United States when he was 17 to join the university’s varsity swim team.
“It feels really good now,” he said after hearing that the government had walked back its plan. “Now I am hopeful and optimistic. I thought I had to go home.”
An analysis of the government’s earlier order by Moody’s Analytics found that it could have had a serious economic impact. According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, three jobs are created for every seven international students. In the 2019-20 school year there were over 1 million international students enrolled in the United States, which would translate to almost half a million jobs. “ICE’s policy would put many of those positions at risk,” Moody’s Analytics said.
A third of all international students are from China, where travel restrictions could make it hard for them to return, Moody’s said.
College towns are heavily dependent on international students for their economic well-being, and the Partnership for a New American Economy and the American Enterprise Institute estimate that every H-1B visa, a foreign worker visa, leads to two jobs being created.