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Harvard, MIT sue US government over directive urging international students attending only online classes to leave country amid COVID-19

ICE’s action leaves hundreds of thousands of international students with no educational options within the United States, the plaint filed by the two universities state.

Meera Emmanuel

Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have filed a lawsuit against the Donald Trump-led United States administration over its recent directive urging foreign students on F-I visas attending only online classes to depart the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic (President and Fellow of Harvard College and MIT v. US Dept of Homeland Security and ors).

The July 6 directive, which also bars such students presently outside the United States from entering or re-entering the country, has been termed by Harvard and MIT as "arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion".

Earlier the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of the US government had stated that students holding non-immigrant visas could attend remote classes while retaining their visa status during the period of the COVID-19 health emergency. However, this exemption was rescinded on July 6.

Additionally, ICE announced that schools whose classes would be entirely online were required to submit an “operational change plan” no later than July 15, nine days after the change was announced.

The complaint filed in the Massachusetts District Court argues that the announcement of this policy by the ICE contravenes the Administrative Procedure Act, 1946 on the following grounds:

  • It fails to consider important aspects of the problem before the agency;

  • It fails to offer any reasoned basis that could justify the policy; and

  • It violates the requirement of notice-and-comment rulemaking.

"The effect—and perhaps even the goal—is to create as much chaos for universities and international students as possible."
Suit filed by Harvard and MIT

As elaborated further in the complaint,

"By all appearances, 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, 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."

ICE proceeded without any indication of having considered the health of the students, the faculty, university staff or communities, the complaint states.

The plaintiffs further state that this policy leaves hundreds and thousands of international students with no educational options within the US.

"Just weeks from the start of the fall semester, these students are largely unable to transfer to universities providing on-campus instruction, notwithstanding ICE’s suggestion that they might do so to avoid removal from the country", reads the complaint.

For many students, returning to their home countries to participate in online instruction is impossible, impracticable, prohibitively expensive, and/or dangerous, the complaint adds.

The Universities are seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunctive relief preventing the US administrative authorities from enforcing the policy announced in ICE’s July 6 Directive, or promulgating it as a final rule.

Litigation firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP is representing Harvard and MIT.

Over 202,014 Indians studying in universities across the United States are likely to be affected by the policy.

As temporary relief, the US Department of Homeland Security reportedly announced a plan to temporarily modify F-1 & M-1 non-immigrant visa requirements for the fall 2020 semester.

Read the complaint:

President and Fellow of Harvard College and MIT v. US Dept of Homeland Security and ors. - Complaint.pdf
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