Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are suing the Trump administration on Wednesday over a policy that would force international students taking online-only classes to leave the US or transfer schools.
The federal lawsuit says the policy, announced by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Monday, was unsafe and would leave hundreds of thousands of international students with no educational options in the US. The complaint was filed in federal court in Boston and seeks a temporary restraining order prohibiting enforcement of the order.
"The effect—and perhaps even the goal—is to create as much chaos for universities and international students as possible," the lawsuit says.
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.
ICE said affected students on F-1 and M-1 visas in the US could transfer to a school offering in-person classes to maintain their legal status. Otherwise, if they stay in the US, they risk being deported.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Harvard and MIT said they would be offering most of their fall classes online.
Under existing federal regulations, students on F-1 visas may take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online.
Under the proposed policy some students taking a combination of online and in-person classes will be allowed to take more than the maximum currently allowed by federal law, as long as schools certify the program is not entirely online. F-1 students in English-language training programs and those on M-1 visas, used for those in vocational programs, are not allowed to enroll in any online classes.
The Department of Homeland Security had previously instituted a temporary exception for online classes in the spring and summer semesters in response to schools moving classes online because of COVID-19.
Harvard's 5,000 students in the US on F-1 visas and MIT's 4,000 students on the same visa could be affected by this rule, the complaint says.
"By all appearances, ICE’s decision reflects an effort by the federal government to force universities to reopen in-person classes," the lawsuit says.
The complaint cites an interview Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of DHS, gave to CNN Tuesday where he said the directive, which is expected to be finalized later this month, will "encourage schools to reopen."
Cuccinelli said the rule would provide more flexibility to international students than had ever been provided before and that foreign scholars could take their online classes from home.
Larry Bacow, president of Harvard University, said in a statement that the order, which appears to pressure schools to hold classes in person, was designed without concern for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others.
"The order came down without notice—its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness," Bacow said. "This comes at a time when the United States has been setting daily records for the number of new infections."
In 2019, the total number of international students in the US was 1.1 million, according to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. The US is home to the largest number of foreign students, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The Washington, DC–based think tank also found that international students contributed $37 billion to the US economy and created or supported more than 450,000 jobs in the 2016–2017 school year.