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The Trump administration on Tuesday rescinded a controversial policy that would have revoked legal status for international students who planned to take classes entirely online in the fall as university campuses remain largely closed during the coronavirus pandemic.
Details of the administration’s rollback came during a court hearing over a challenge brought by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in federal court on Tuesday. According to a court order, both sides had reached an agreement to rescind the policy, which was announced by Immigration and Customs Enforcement last week, sending thousands of students into a panic.
The Trump administration’s decision is a rare one. Government officials have repeatedly defended controversial immigration policies in court during the past three years, refusing to alter their decisions unless forced to. In this case, however, droves of major universities had lined up to challenge the policy in court. The Associated Press counted more than 200 universities that had agreed to support the Harvard challenge. International students in the US also spoke up on social media as politicians railed against its necessity.
"This is the first time since family separation that the Trump administration has backed down on an immigration policy without a court order," said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council. "Like with family separation, the administration seems to have totally unanticipated the level of backlash they were going to get. But while family separation was eventually replaced with other policies aimed at cracking down on asylum seekers, with the fall semester only weeks away, it remains unclear if the Trump administration will try again here."
International students reached by BuzzFeed News Tuesday said they were grateful for the decision.
“I'm extremely relieved on a personal note. I won't have to compromise my health or education,” said Siobhan, a 25-year old Irish college student in New York studying biochemistry. “But I think this very clearly shows that we can't take anything about our legal status for granted, and that we should be really vigilant about future attempts to do something like this.”
ICE had previously said 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, they risked being deported.
Lisa, a 24-year-old student from Africa who asked that her full name not be used, is attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst on an F-1 visa and said her department is completely online because of the pandemic.
"It is both terrifying and disappointing that this had to happen in the first place," she said. "The government basically created a problem and then proceeded to 'solve it.' Although I am relieved that the policy was rescinded, I am still angry that it took lawsuits to be filed for the government to do the right thing. International students and foreign-born nationals in this country always have to live with the floor begin pulled from underneath them. That is not a way to live."
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 regulation, as long as schools certify the program is not entirely online.
The Department of Homeland Security's Student and Exchange Visitor Program previously instituted a temporary exception for online classes in the spring and summer semesters in response to schools going online because of COVID-19.
Larry Bacow, president of Harvard University, said in a statement called ICE's reversal a "significant victory" against a directive that would've disrupted the nation's higher education system.
"I have heard from countless international students who said that the July 6 directive had put them at serious risk," Bacow said. "These student—our students—can now rest easier and focus on their education, which is all they ever wanted to do."
Even if the government attempts to issue a new directive, Bacow said their legal arguments remain strong and are well positioned to immediately seek judicial relief "should the government again act unlawfully."
"The ICE directive sought to force each of us to choose between the health of our communities and the education of our international students—a false and dangerous choice which we rejected," Bacow said.