US drops threat to deport foreign students with online classes

The White House has rescinded a rule that would have forced foreign students to leave the country if their university courses go online after being sued by several leading US universities. 

The judge presiding over a lawsuit lodged by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said US Immigration and Customs Enforcement would revert to its earlier guidance and allow overseas students to remain in the US even if their courses were wholly virtual.

The move to restrict the visas of international students had attracted widespread criticism from universities, business groups and large companies. Several top US universities filed briefs in support of Harvard and MIT’s lawsuit, as did more than a dozen technology companies including Facebook, Google and Microsoft. 

Separately, attorneys-general representing 18 states and the District of Columbia filed a pair of lawsuits seeking to block the rule, which threatened affected students with deportation if they did not leave the country or transfer to a university with physical classes.

Colleges and universities across the US have been grappling with how to safely return students to campus amid worries that moving too quickly could spark a fresh wave of infections.

Restrictions on travel and delays in the visa issuance process caused by the closure of consulates and embassies overseas have already hit non-US students hoping to study at American universities, leaving many unable to travel.

The White House’s plan to tighten visa restrictions for foreign students came after it suspended a range of other guest worker visas affecting scientists, doctors, au pairs and some seasonal workers, among others. Mr Trump has also suspended green cards — which offer permanent residency — citing the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs as coronavirus ravages the US economy.