Counsel for Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) and the U.S. government announced today that they had come to a resolution—allowing international students with only online courses to remain in the U.S. for the fall semester. The hearing followed a challenging week for international students and administrators at Brandeis, who worried that international students would be forced to return to their home countries unless they enrolled in in-person courses.
The resolution means that colleges and universities will rely on guidance issued by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the spring for the fall semester. The March guidance allowed students to take online courses and remain in the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while traditionally, students on F-1 and M-1 visas have been barred from taking more than one online course, according to National Public Radio.
U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs gave the announcement that a settlement had been reached at a July 14 hearing in Massachusetts federal district court, according to a Wall Street Journal article. The hearing, which The Brandeis Hoot attended via phone, made it clear that the July 6 guidelines would not be enforced on a national level.
Brandeis’ International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO) celebrated the decision in their newsletter on Tuesday. “We know that last week, the announcement created so much anxiety for our international students and those who support you,” read the newsletter. “For this reason, we are thrilled to share this victory with you. We also know that while this news provides a great relief, it does not take away the concerns many of you still face in your daily lives during this pandemic.”
Harvard and MIT filed a joint lawsuit on July 8 against the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the ICE—two days after the DHS published guidelines which would require international students to leave the country if they took only online courses, according to The Harvard Crimson. The suit alleged that the July 6 directive violated the Administrative Procedure Act—meaning the directive was “arbitrary and capricious,” imposing enormous burdens on schools and failing to consider the needs of schools and students and without a reasoned explanation or justification, according to a copy of the suit obtained by The Hoot.
The July 6 guidelines required F-1 and M-1 visa students to either take in-person instruction or return to their home country. The guidelines also threatened deportation for those who did not comply.
“The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States,” read the July 6 guidelines. “Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures… If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”
With Brandeis’ fall term set to begin on Aug. 26, the announcement came just under two months before the university was scheduled to reopen. Universities and colleges across the country were required to update documentation for all international students at their institution by Aug. 4, according to an article from The Harvard Crimson. Schools still working to finalize reopening plans faced a new time crunch.
International students at Brandeis were worried, said ISSO director Jodi Hanelt in an interview with The Hoot.
“The announcement on the sixth… did cause a lot of worry for our students,” she said. “We did our best to explain that it’s not a law yet, nothing enforceable… I think it’s part of [the] Trump administration push to open schools,”
Many concerned students wrote to or called the ISSO, and the office was handling the increased outreach, said Hanelt. The office is working primarily from home due to COVID-19 restrictions, added Hanelt.
She said she was heartened by the lawsuit and Brandeis’ response. Brandeis signed a brief alongside 59 other colleges and universities in support of Harvard and MIT. The institutions—from 24 states and the District of Columbia—include many Massachusetts schools such as Tufts University, Northeastern University and Wellesley College. Several states also filed lawsuits protesting the directive, according to Forbes.
The brief describes international students as core members of these institutions, who “make valuable contributions to… classrooms, campuses, and communities—contributions that have helped make American higher education the envy of the world.”
The brief describes how federal guidance suddenly pivoted—from allowing international students to remain in the U.S. for all online classes to forcing them out. This sudden shift drastically changed these 59 schools’ preparations for the fall, “causing significant harm and turmoil,” read the brief.
Darryl Chia ’21, an international student at Brandeis, said that the uncertainty over visa restrictions was one of the reasons he decided to remain in Waltham, M.A. this summer. He was cautiously optimistic about the ruling.
“It’s quite reassuring that the restrictions aren’t going to be enforced. Although, I have to admit my surprise at the fact,” he wrote to The Hoot. “Even now, with the sudden announcement that restrictions won’t be enforced, everything seems all too fluid at the moment, and I expect there to be further developments down the line from this [Trump] administration.”
Chia said he wasn’t surprised by the July 6 directive and that the uncertainty over being able to remain in Waltham, M.A. led him to take four in-person classes, rather than his original two or three, in case the mode of instruction were to change for one of his courses.
“Unfortunately, I don’t feel at all surprised by the decision, albeit it has been a bit hurtful to see such a blatantly xenophobic law actually passed,” Chia wrote to The Hoot. “With the current political climate in the U.S., and its deteriorating relationship with both its allies in Europe and Asia, it seemed only natural to assume that the Trump Administration would take steps to solidify what their base believes they want—continuing commitment to American exceptionalism and isolationism.”
Chia said he thought Brandeis and the ISSO have handled the situation well and was proud of the university’s commitment to hybrid courses and to working with other institutions to prevent the enforcement of the July 6 guidelines. Brandeis’ initial response included offering additional hybrid learning options for undergraduate and graduate students—while originally graduate learning would have been online——so international students could keep their visa status, according to an email from President Ron Liebowitz on July 8.