Coronavirus: Elite universities sue over US visa ruling

A socially-distanced celebration of law-school graduation at Harvard in May

Two elite US universities are suing immigration services over a decision to withdraw visas from foreign students whose courses move fully on line.

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed the lawsuit against Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said the visa move’s “cruelty [is] surpassed only by its recklessness”.

Many colleges are moving courses online amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Harvard had on Monday announced it might hold all classes on line for the autumn term, with only 40% of undergraduates housed on campus.

The decision from ICE, the federal police agency within Homeland Security, came right after that, saying students could face deportation unless they changed to an institution with in-person tuition.

President Donald Trump on Tuesday lashed out at Harvard, calling its move online “ridiculous”. He has been adamant that US schooling should return to normal in the autumn term.

What’s in the 2 universities’ lawsuit?

It was filed with the district court in Boston on Wednesday morning, Harvard’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, reported, seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunctive relief contrary to the visa decision.

  • Read the court papers here

The lawsuit argues that ICE’s move “threw Harvard and MIT – indeed, virtually all of higher education in the United States – into chaos”.

It says ICE’s action “proceeded without any indication of having considered the health of students, faculty, university staff, or communities” and leaves “hundreds of thousands of international students with no educational options within the United States”.

“We believe that the ICE order is bad public policy, and we believe that it is illegal,”, Mr Bacow said.

What does the visa move mean?

The Student and Exchange Visitor Programme, which can be operated by ICE, had introduced a temporary exemption to allow students whose courses had moved online for the spring and summer semesters to stay in the US.

However, the exemption will never be extended to the new academic year.

The decision affects students who are in the US on F-1 and M-1 visas, in line with the ICE statement.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 9% of US universities are planning to teach all their classes online in the autumn, although this might change in the coming months.

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren described ICE’s move as “senseless, cruel, and xenophobic”.

But President Trump railed at Harvard, saying of its on line move: “I think it’s ridiculous, I think it’s an easy way out and I think they ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

Her added: “It’s so important that children at this age especially that they’re together, that they’re together on campus and that’s what we’re striving for.”

Who might be affected?

Shruti Menon, BBC Reality Check

The ruling relates to specific forms of visa issued for academic study. US government figures show that last year, significantly more than 373,000 of these visas were granted.

The US had more than one million international students doing various graduate and undergraduate programmes in 2018-19, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). That’s about 5.5% of the sum total student community in the country.

Out of the, nearly three-quarters were from Asia – 48% Chinese and 26% Indians.

The IIE says that, according to the US Department of Commerce, international students contributed $45bn (£36bn) to the country’s economy.

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