Harvard and MIT on Wednesday announced they have filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement over a directive from the Trump administration that prevents international students from remaining in the country.

The White House on Monday announced that international students would be stripped of their visas if they enrolled in online classes at colleges and universities in the United States even amid the coronavirus pandemic. On Wednesday, the two universities, which were recently ranked as the top two in the world, filed pleadings in U.S. District Court in Boston seeking a temporary restraining order prohibiting enforcement of the July 6 directive.

“The order came down without notice – its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness,” Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow said in a statement. “It appears that it was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others.”

Under the Trump administration’s guidance, students attending schools operating entirely online may will not be allowed to take a full online course load and remain in the country. Students with F-1 or M-1 visas who were outside of the U.S. will not be allowed to enter the country.

It’s a reversal of an order issued by ICE on March 13, the same day that President Donald Trump declared a national emergency. The Student and Exchange Visitor Program, a division of ICE, issued guidance that relaxed the cap on online coursework so that international students could continue pursuing an education at American colleges and universities. On Monday, ICE rescinded the order even as cases of coronavirus continue to increase across the United States, which prompted Harvard and MIT to sue.

“If students cannot maintain their full-time student status, they will lose their ability to access work allowances in the summer and fall 2021 because they are required to maintain their F-1 status for the full academic year preceding their access to practical training,” Harvard said in a statement.

Both universities claim the directive violates the Administrative Procedures Act in three ways. It first failed to consider important aspects of the problem before the agency acted, the schools said. It also didn’t provide any reasonable basis that could justify the policy and failed to provide the public with notice and the opportunity to comment.

“Our international students now have many questions – about their visas, their health, their families and their ability to continue working toward an MIT degree. Unspoken, but unmistakable, is one more question: Am I welcome?” MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in a statement. “At MIT, the answer, unequivocally, is yes.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey called the directive “cruel” and “illegal.” Healey said in a tweet she plans on suing the federal government as well.

“Our state is home to thousands of international students who shouldn’t fear deportation or health risks in order to get an education,” Healey said. “We will sue.”

According to a statement from Harvard, the directive’s purpose is to force schools to welcome students back on campus. The order only applies to students who are attending colleges that are operating through online learning or a hybrid model.

“ICE’s decision reflects an effort by the federal government to force universities to reopen in-person classes, which would require housing students in densely packed residential halls,” Harvard said in a statement. “Notwithstanding the universities’ judgment that it is neither safe nor educationally advisable to do so, and to force such a reopening when neither the students nor the universities have sufficient time to react to or address the additional risks to the health and safety of their communities.”

On Tuesday, MIT announced plans to only welcome back seniors to campus, while other students would continue learning online. The school anticipates bringing back all students in the spring.

Students at MIT with questions may contact the university at [email protected]. Updates will also be provided on the school’s International Students Office’s website.

“MIT’s strength is its people – no matter where they come from,” Reif said in a statement. “I know firsthand the anxiety of arriving in this country as a student, excited to advance my education, but separated from my family by thousands of miles. I also know that welcoming the world’s brightest, most talented and motivated students is an essential American strength.”


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