Harvard and MIT sue US government for revoking foreign student visas

President Donald Trump threatened to withhold federal funding if schools don't reopen

FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2019, file photo, pedestrians walk through the gates of Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday, July 8, 2020, challenging the Trump administration's decision to bar international students from staying in the U.S. if they take classes entirely online this fall. Some institutions, including Harvard, have announced that all instruction will be offered remotely in the fall during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
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Two leading US universities on Wednesday asked a court to block an order by President Donald Trump's administration threatening the visas of foreign students whose courses have moved online during the pandemic.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lodged the lawsuit after the US Immigration and Custom Enforcement said on Monday that the affected students must leave the country or transfer to a school with in-person tuition.

"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 said.

The immigration agency said that the State Department would not issue visas to students enrolled in programmes that are fully online for the autumn semester.

It said that such students would not be allowed to enter the country.

Universities with a mixture of in-person and online classes will have to show that foreign students are taking an equal number of both to maintain their status.

Mr Trump is pushing universities and schools to fully open when the academic year starts in September, despite the US registering record numbers of Covid-19 infections.

He threatened to withhold federal money if schools did not reopen in autumn, and lashed out at federal health officials over school reopening guidelines that he said were impractical and expensive.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for schools, including testing for Covid-19, dividing students into small groups, serving packaged lunches in classrooms instead of cafeterias and minimising sharing of school supplies.

It has advised that seats be spaced at least two metres apart and that guards and partitions be put in place when social distancing is not possible.

After Mr Trump railed against the CDC's guidelines, it was announced that new guidelines would be released next week.

The threat to revoke foreign student visas was considered to be a move by the White House to press universities that are adopting a cautious approach to reopening amid the pandemic.

"The order came down without notice, its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness," Mr Bacow said.

He said it was made "without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors and others".

The universities said in their lawsuit that the order would harm students "immensely", both personally and financially.

It describes the order as "arbitrary and capricious" and says it threw US higher education "into chaos".

The president of Columbia University in New York called the administration's actions "deeply misguided" and said the university would take steps in response, including organising courses into the hybrid online and in-person model.

There were more than one million international students in the US for the 2018-2019 academic year, the Institute of International Education says.

The plaintiffs asked that the court issue a temporary restraining order and "permanent injunctive relief", preventing the policy from being enforced.

They also asked that the order be declared unlawful, that their legal costs are covered, and that they receive any other relief that the court deems appropriate.

The lawsuit, filed in Boston, lists the defendants as the US Immigration and Custom Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security.

The US posted a daily high of 60,209 new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, Johns Hopkins University said, and topped three million cases on Wednesday.

The coronavirus has claimed more than 131,000 lives across America.

Most US colleges and universities have not yet announced their plans for the autumn term but Harvard said all of its classes for the 2020-2021 academic year will be conducted online "with rare exceptions".

About 40 per cent of undergraduates will be allowed to return to campus, but their instruction will be conducted remotely.

Harvard says packed classrooms endanger the health of students and teachers.

Mr Trump has called the decision "ridiculous" as he pushes to reopen the country before he seeks re-election in November.

While cracking down on immigration is one of his key issues, he has taken a particularly hard stance on foreigners since the health crisis began.

In June, he froze until 2021 the issuing of green cards, which offer permanent US resident status, and some work visas, particularly those used in the technology sector.