Government Rescinds International Student Policy

The decision to abandon a directive that would have prevented international students from taking all their coursework online came in response to a lawsuit from Harvard and MIT.

The Department of Homeland Security rescinded a July 6 policy directive that would have required international students to take at least some in-person coursework in order to remain in the U.S.

The government agreed to rescind the guidance in response to a lawsuit filed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The rescission of the July 6 directive, and an associated FAQ released July 7, means that the government reverts to guidance issued in March that allows international students to remain in the U.S. while taking a fully online course load.

At least 20 states and the District of Columbia and about two dozen universities filed various lawsuits to block the policy change from going into effect. Harvard and MIT — both of which plan to conduct most of their fall coursework online — argued in their lawsuit that the July 6 directive reflected an effort by the government to force universities to reopen despite the continuing dangers posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

They argued the directive put universities “in the untenable situation” of either moving forward with online coursework at the expense of the welfare and future prospects of their international students — or forced them “to attempt, with just weeks before classes resume, to provide in-person education despite the grave risk to public health and safety that such a change would entail.”

Typically, federal regulations restrict international students from taking more than one online class at a time. In March, as colleges shifted their courses online in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the government suspended enforcement of those regulations, assuring colleges that international students could remain in the U.S. while taking a fully online curriculum. The March guidance from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, a unit within U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, described the allowance for international students to take multiple online courses as a temporary accommodation that would remain in effect “for the duration of the emergency.”

On July 6, the government abruptly reversed course, saying that continuing and new international students could not legally stay in the U.S. if they were taking all their classes online. Universities and higher education groups pushed back strongly, and the first lawsuit — from Harvard and MIT — was filed two days later.

Before it agreed to rescind the new guidance, the Homeland Security Department filed a motion Monday in which it justified the decision to block international students from taking an online-only course load based on what it described as “significant national security concerns.”

The government argued in a court filing, “A solely online program of study provides a nonimmigrant 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 … Additionally, such programs could allow a nonimmigrant student to conduct activities other than full-time studying.”

The government maintained in that same filing that “students choosing a 100% online learning program do not need to be physically present in the United States.”

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By Alicia Hibbard
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