The move came after ICE announced that foreign students whose entire courses have moved online because of the coronavirus pandemic must leave the country or transfer to a school offering in-person tuition.

In this file photo taken on April 22, 2020, general view of Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In this file photo taken on April 22, 2020, general view of Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Reuters Archive)

Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have sued the Trump administration, seeking to block a new rule that would bar foreign students from remaining in the United States if all courses are moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The two universities filed a lawsuit in federal court in Boston on Wednesday asking for an emergency temporary restraining order on the new directive issued by the government on Monday.

"We will pursue this case vigorously so that our international students ⁠— and international students at institutions across the country ⁠— can continue their studies without the threat of deportation," Harvard President Lawrence Bacow wrote in a statement addressed to the Harvard community.

Bacow said the order came without notice and that its “cruelty” was surpassed only by its "recklessness.”

“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,” Bacow added.

The lawsuit filed by Harvard and MIT, two of the most elite US universities, is the first to challenge the order that could force tens of thousands of foreign students to leave the country if their schools switch fully to remote learning.

Harvard had announced it would hold all classes online in the coming fall term.

US President Donald Trump is pushing schools across the country to reopen in the fall.

In a statement, the US State Department said that while international students are welcome in the US, the policy “provides greater flexibility for non-immigrant students to continue their education in the United States, while also allowing for proper social distancing on open and operating campuses across America.”

The Trump administration announcement blindsided academic institutions grappling with the logistical challenges of safely resuming classes as the coronavirus pandemic continues unabated around the world, and surges in the United States, especially among young people.

There are more than a million foreign students at US colleges and universities, and many schools depend on revenue from foreign students, who often pay full tuition.

Confusion on who has to leave

The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency rule said most students on F-1 and M-1 visas could stay if their programs were in person or offered a mix of online and in-person instruction.

In the wake of the announcement, students, professors, and universities were scrambling to figure out exactly who would be affected by the rule and come up with ways to comply without having to leave the country. On Twitter, professors across the country offered to teach outdoor in-person independent study courses for affected students.

The ICE policy change marked an unexpected reversal of exceptions to the rules limiting online learning for foreign students when colleges and universities in March rushed to shutter campuses and move to virtual classes as the pandemic forced lockdowns.

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

The suit alleges the government skirted the proper rule-making process and is asking the court to strike it down.

Judge Allison Burroughs, appointed by former President Barack Obama, is assigned to hear the case. In 2017, she ordered a halt to Trump's travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, a policy that was eventually upheld by the US Supreme Court. 

READ MORE: US says foreign students whose classes move online cannot stay in country

Source: TRTWorld and agencies