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Harvard, MIT Sue Over Trump Admin’s Pandemic-Fueled Attack on Online-Only Student Visas

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS - MARCH 23: The Harvard University campus is shown on March 23, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Students were required to be out of their dorms no later than March 15 and finish the rest of the semester online due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Last Monday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a sudden and terrifying declaration that students who are in the United States with student visas would lose those visas if they attended online-only classes due to schools moving their classes online. This move would affect thousands of students currently in the U.S. who would be forced to return home due to universities switching to online classes only in the fall.

One such university is Harvard, which will offer education only via online instruction this fall. (Yes, the cost of tuition will remain the same). Rules barring students from coming the U.S. to take online-only courses aren’t new, and ICE’s announcement notes that the Student and Exchange Visitor Program had made exceptions for the spring and summer due to the pandemic, but the sudden decision not to continue that exception into the fall is appalling.

Today, Harvard announced that they, along with MIT, are suing the Trump administration to block enforcement of the rule. Harvard declared, “We believe that the ICE order is bad public policy, and we believe that it is illegal.”

“The order came down without notice—its cruelty 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,” Harvard University President Larry Bacow said, according to CNN. But there’s more than that.

This incredibly hurtful rule accomplishes two things that are a priority for Trump: cutting down on “legal” immigration as much as possible despite his claims that his problem with immigration is not due to racism or xenophobia but illegality, and at the same time, as noted by Barcow, putting pressure on schools to open in-person instruction in the fall.

In a related move, Trump claimed today that he would withhold federal funding from schools if they didn’t open in November. He can’t do that, for one, but he seems to think that bullying schools into reopening will help his strategy of combating coronavirus by just pretending it’s not a problem anymore!

The lawsuit, filed in Massachusets federal court, argues that the new rule violates the Administrative Procedures Act, and the plaintiffs are seeking a temporary restraining order and permanent injunction against the rule, meaning that they want their judge to rule immediately that the rule cannot be enforced until it goes through this lawsuit.

The suit, in addition to citing the rule as illegal, focuses on the danger and burden it creates for students: “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 … Moreover, for many students, returning to their home countries to participate in online instruction is impossible, impracticable, prohibitively expensive, and/or dangerous.”

Harvard and MIT might not be the only Universities who sue to challenge this law, and hopefully, they will be granted a restraining order preventing it from harming the thousands of students in the U.S. who have suddenly been thrust into limbo regarding both their education and where they will be this fall.

As many have said, with rules like this, like trying to end DACA, or denying asylum, or so many other xenophobic and racist decisions from the Trump administration, the cruelty is the point. And though this rule may be paused and defeated in court, the cruelty of it and every other decision by this administration that had dehumanized and victimized people still remains and still hurts.

(via The Crimson, image: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.