The Trump administration announced Tuesday that it will rescind a policy change that would have prohibited international students from remaining in the US if they are taking only online classes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcement came during a hearing in Massachusetts federal court. Harvard and MIT, backed by more than 200 other universities, had challenged the new policy, which would have forced students taking solely online classes to either return home, transfer to programs with in-person classes, or face the risk of deportation.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced the policy change last week, just hours after Harvard unveiled its plans to hold only online classes for the coming academic year. Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of homeland security, later told CNN that the policy change was meant to “encourage schools to reopen” — part of the Trump administration’s goal of forcing American life to resume even as the coronavirus continues to spread and the death toll mounts.

Universities have argued that the policy overlooked their efforts to keep students, instructors, and other members of their communities safe amid rising cases nationwide — especially those who are immunocompromised and face higher risk of complications from Covid-19.

It’s one of the rare instances in which the Trump administration has retreated on a major immigration policy priority in the face of widespread public backlash. By contrast, President Trump defended his decisions to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and impose his travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries — both intensely unpopular policies — until the Supreme Court weighed in.

“The Trump Administration appears to have seen the harm of its July 6 directive, but it shouldn’t take lawsuits and widespread outcry for them to do their job,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who had filed a separate lawsuit challenging the policy, said in a statement Tuesday. “In the midst of an economic and public health crisis, we don’t need the federal government alarming Americans or wasting everyone’s time and resources with dangerous policy decisions. President Trump’s arbitrary actions put the health and safety of our students and communities across the country at risk.”

ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the reasoning behind its decision.

The Trump administration could still pass narrower restrictions

The Trump administration may still announce a narrower set of restrictions on foreign students who are newly enrolling in US universities, including college freshmen, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

That could upend the plans of thousands of students who have already committed to attend a US university just weeks before the start of the fall semester. But the judge in Harvard and MIT’s case has announced that she intends to keep the case open, meaning the Trump administration would likely have to defend any such changes before her court. (Harvard declined to comment on whether it would challenge such rumored restrictions in court.)

It would just be the latest way that Trump, who has criticized universities for “taking the easy way out” by canceling in-person classes amid the pandemic, has targeted foreign students. In recent years, he has sought to clamp down on visa programs that allow foreign students to gain work experience post-graduation, preside over sting operations to weed out student visa fraud, and make it easier for students to fall out of legal status.

Foreign student enrollment, which totaled about 1 million students nationwide in 2014, has been on a steady decline since his election. That has dealt a blow to universities that rely on their talents and tuition, and to the US economy — foreign students generate an estimated $32 billion in revenue annually and support more than 300,000 jobs, according to the think tank New American Economy.

The policy change that ICE retracted would have forced students to self-deport

Before the pandemic, ICE had a longstanding policy of barring international students from living in the US while pursuing online-only curricula. To maintain a valid visa, foreign students must pursue the number of credits necessary to complete whatever their school deems to be a “full course of study.” For students on F-1 visas, only a single online class can count towards their full course of study, and for students in technical and vocational programs on M-1 visas, none count.

ICE changed its policy as universities suspended in-person classes starting in early March to stop the spread of the coronavirus, temporarily waiving limits on how many online courses foreign students can take for the spring and summer semesters. The exemption would remain “in effect for the duration of the emergency” related to Covid-19, the agency said at the time.

But the national emergency is by no means over, and universities have been working for months to determine how they can safely hold classes in the fall without becoming “superspreaders.” ICE nevertheless announced that it was updating the policy change last week such that students pursuing online-only curricula would no longer be allowed to remain in the US.

It would have offered schools more flexibility than the agency’s pre-pandemic policy, Cuccinelli told CNN last week, adding that “anything short of 100 percent online” would have allowed foreign students to stay in the US.

But schools say the policy change would have hampered their careful plans to reopen and leave their students with no option but to leave the country. ICE suggested that students could have transferred to programs that are not online-only, but that would have been impossible within weeks of the start of the fall semester.

And for many students, the prospect of returning to their home countries to take classes online would have been “impossible, impracticable, prohibitively expensive, and/or dangerous,” according to Harvard and MIT’s suit. Raúl Romero, a Kenyon College student from Venezuela, said that returning to his home country would mean going back to a socioeconomic and political crisis that has displaced thousands and led to increases in violent crime, starvation, and poverty.

Tuesday’s announcement from the Trump administration came as a relief to those students who will no longer have to imminently return to their home countries.

This isn’t the first time Trump has targeted students

On the campaign trail in 2015, Trump voiced support for keeping foreign students in the US. But once he took office, he pursued a number of policies taking aim at them instead.

Trump has imposed restrictions on visa programs that provide a pathway for students to remain in the US long-term, including the sought-after H-1B visa program for skilled workers. It’s a pipeline for foreign talent, particularly in the fields of computer science, engineering, education, and medicine.

During the pandemic, Trump signed a proclamation temporarily blocking the entry of foreign workers coming to the US on H-1Bs and other visas through the end of the year. According to a senior administration official, he’s also pursuing reforms to the program that would make it harder for entry-level workers just graduating from US universities to qualify.

More than 85,000 immigrants get H-1B visas for skilled workers annually, including thousands of workers at tech giants such as Google and Amazon. Recipients are currently selected by lottery, but Trump is proposing to instead prioritize workers with the highest wages and raise the program’s minimum wage requirements.

For foreign students deciding to attend American universities, the prospect of being able to work in the US post-graduation is a major draw. Absent that ability, they might decide against attending school in the US.

Trump has also sought to clamp down on student visa fraud, using what many advocates consider to be questionable methods. ICE came under fire in November after announcing that it had been operating a fake university designed to lure in immigrants seeking to obtain student visas fraudulently — but the students claimed they were the ones who had been deceived. Some 250 students at the University of Farmington in Farmington Hills, Michigan, were consequently arrested.

The University of Farmington wasn’t a real educational institution: Although ICE advertised the university as offering graduate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses, it did not have any teachers, curriculum, classes, or other educational activities. Its primary selling point, prosecutors said, is a ticket to an F-1 visa.

But attorneys for the students affected say these operations are entrapment, designed to trick unknowing international students into paying thousands of dollars to a university, while having no way of knowing that their actions are illegal.

The Trump administration also tried to make it easier for students to face penalties for violating the terms of their visas. US Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a memo in 2018 that meant that mistakes as minor as failing to file an address change report or having to drop a course could have prevented students from applying for a new visa or barred them from reentering the US for up to 10 years, Ron Klasko, a Philadelphia-based immigration attorney, said. That memo, however, was blocked in federal court before it could go into effect.

Universities argue Trump’s attacks on students harm American innovation

Trump’s attempts to target foreign students have already led to a decline of almost 11 percent in enrollment since the fall of 2016. That drop can largely be attributed to their perception that the US is less welcoming toward foreign students.

That’s a loss for both universities and the businesses that rely on their talent and economic power. Foreign students tend to pay more in tuition than Americans, and the loss of that revenue could hurt the quality of US higher education more broadly, universities have argued. At the graduate level, many serve as research and teaching assistants, now aiding critical research on the coronavirus pandemic, and some grad programs could not exist in the STEM fields and social sciences without them.

Post-graduation, many international students become entrepreneurs or pursue careers in fields requiring specialized skills, particularly in STEM fields where there are well-documented labor shortages. Nearly a quarter of the founders of billion-dollar American startups came to the US initially as international students, according to the National Foundation for American Policy.

Absent that talent, many businesses may have to resort to candidates that are less qualified, institute training and reskilling programs for their employees, or outsource work abroad, Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said.

Even if international students go back to their home countries post-graduation, they still indirectly contribute to the US economy. Many become contact points for American businesses looking to build a relationship with companies abroad or expand their business outside the US. And US-educated graduates populating foreign governments may pursue US-friendly policy.

“It is the American-trained, American-educated graduates that become the primary interlocutors,” Chakravorti said.

But as Chakravorti has observed among his own students, Trump’s immigration policies have soured many foreigners on attending university in the US or staying in the country after they graduate.

When João Cardoso, a rising senior from Portugal, was accepted to Yale, he was seriously considering finding a job in the US after graduation, but the past three years have dissuaded him. He speaks German, so he could get a job in Germany instead as a software developer and wouldn’t even need to apply for a new visa since he is a European Union citizen. For him, staying in the US isn’t worth the hassle or the heartache.

“I’m out of here as soon as possible,” he said. “I’m completely disappointed with this country in so many ways.”

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