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US drops plan to deport international students studying online due to pandemic

Sued by several universities, Trump administration reverses policy to deport international students whose courses move fully online because of the coronavirus
A woman wearing a protective mask walks on the Columbia University campus on 9 March, 2020 in New York City
A woman wearing a protective mask walks on the Columbia University campus on 9 March 2020 in New York City (AFP/File photo)
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The Trump administration has scrapped plans that require international students take in-person classes or leave the country amid the spread of the coronavirus, after two of the nation's top universities sued immigration authorities.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) won a legal battle on Tuesday challenging new immigration guidelines that said international students would face being deported if they took their classes entirely online at the start of the new academic year.

"The government has agreed to rescind DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and ICE [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] rules barring international students attending online universities from staying in the US, per a hearing this afternoon in Harvard and MIT's lawsuit against the agencies," Harvard's student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, tweeted moments after the announcement. 

Under the now-rescinded measure, student visa holders would have been required to "depart the country" or switch schools if their university only offered online-only classes in the fall.

The US immigration agency will instead revert back to the guidance it issued in March, which allows those taking online courses to remain in the United States on student visas.

Middle East Eye reached out to ICE, but did not receive a response by the time of this article's publication. It was not immediately clear if there were other terms included within the settlement.

US District Judge Allison Burroughs in Massachusetts said the parties had agreed to a resolution less than five minutes into Tuesday's hearing, the Harvard Crimson reported

The resolution came a day before a government deadline that would have required schools to certify which students would be taking in-person classes to meet the now-rescinded visa requirements in the fall.

'Coercing schools': 17 States sue

California’s attorney general, as well as several other universities also filed suits against the order last week, in addition to a joint suit filed by 17 US states and the District of Columbia on Monday. 

Monday's suit against the Trump administration sought an immediate injunction to visa restriction on the grounds that it would cause "irreparable harm to the public health and the economy". 

Coronavirus: US states sue Trump administration over new student visa guidelines
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The plan's announcement sparked widespread outrage last week, which prompted the slew of lawsuits. Opponents to the order decried it as political, pointing to President Donald Trump's push to reopen the economy ahead of the November elections, despite drastics spikes in the number of reported Covid-19 infections.

On Monday, coronavirus cases in the US had continued their upward trajectory, with a total of nearly 60,000 newly reported cases, the same as its current record-breaking 7-day average, according to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC). 

As evidence of the order's political nature, Monday's lawsuit filed by the State's included a screenshot of a tweet by Trump - posted hours before ICE published the directive -  calling on schools to reopen.

"Coercing schools into holding more in-person classes in the fall - regardless of the schools' assessment of the health and safety risks of doing so - harms the Plaintiff States' ability to regulate their institutions and protect the public," the lawsuit read.

Students, universities, state governments and rights groups celebrated the settlement in posts to Twitter on Tuesday.

"This is what victory looks like," the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in a celebratory tweet announcing the settlement. 

New York Attorney General Letitia James' Office, which was a party in one of the suits, also welcomed the settlement, reiterating that "schools should never have to choose between enrolling international students & public health, period". 

"Yesterday, we sued. Today, ICE is rescinding its rule that would prevent thousands of international students from studying in the US," Vermont Attorney General Thomas J Donovan Jr tweeted

"We're proud to have fought for these international students who enrich our state and our colleges and universities."