BOSTON — Facing eight federal lawsuits and opposition from hundreds of universities, the Trump administration on Tuesday rescinded a rule that would have required international students to transfer or leave the country if their schools held classes entirely online because of the pandemic.
The announcement brings relief to thousands of foreign students, including about 5,800 at UW-Madison, who had been at risk of being deported from the country. The news was also welcomed by hundreds of universities that spent the past few days scrambling to reassess their plans for the fall in light of the policy issued last week.
“Today’s announcement is encouraging news for all college students and for American universities,” UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a statement. “Universities need flexibility to educate students in the most effective manner possible during the pandemic and international students deserve stability and support as they pursue their degrees here.”
The national outcry from students, instructors, university administrators, businesses and attorney generals over the past week demonstrates the value that international students bring to campuses and the country, she said.
The decision was announced at the start of a hearing in a federal lawsuit in Boston brought by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It came one day after Wisconsin and several other states filed their own lawsuit seeking to block the rule from taking effect.
“This is a major win for not only colleges, universities, and students, but also for public health and the economy,” Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul said in a statement reacting to Tuesday’s news.
U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs said federal immigration authorities agreed to pull the July 6 directive and “return to the status quo.”
A lawyer representing the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said only that the judge’s characterization was correct.
Under the policy, international students in the U.S. would have been forbidden from taking all their courses online this fall. New visas would not have been issued to students at schools planning to provide all classes online, which includes Harvard. Students already in the U.S. would have faced deportation if they didn’t transfer schools or leave the country voluntarily.
Immigration officials issued the policy last week, reversing earlier guidance from March 13 that offered flexibility around online education because of COVID-19. They argued that they told colleges all along that any guidance prompted by the pandemic was subject to change. They said the rule was consistent with existing law barring international students from taking classes entirely online. Federal officials said they were providing leniency by allowing students to keep their visas even if they study online from abroad.
University leaders believed the rule was part of President Donald Trump’s effort to pressure the nation’s schools and colleges to reopen this fall even as new virus cases rise. Colleges said the policy would put students’ safety at risk and hurt schools financially. Many schools rely on tuition from international students, and some stood to lose millions of dollars in revenue if the rule had taken hold.
UW-Madison educational policy studies professor Ran Liu called the rescinding of the rule “great news” but said many other barriers still exist for student visa holders.
As a former international student herself, she is deeply familiar with the obstacles this student population faces. For example, some students have to leave the U.S. each year to renew their visa even if they are in a four- or five-year program. Applications targeted for review by immigration officials can delay the return of students for several months, disrupting their learning.
The pandemic has created additional hurdles for international students, she said, such as quarantining requirements, closed consulate offices, slow processing of paperwork and limited available flights.
Many institutions, including UW-Madison, are bracing for a decline in the number of international students enrolled this school year because of those restrictions.
While the rule was quickly rescinded, Liu fears the long-term effect of the short-lived policy will be even more detrimental to colleges.
“Many students may think twice now about coming to the U.S. or staying after graduation,” she said. “It’s definitely changed the image of the U.S. in people’s minds.”
State Journal reporter Kelly Meyerhofer contributed to this report.