A US federal judge will likely issue a decision next week on a request by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to block a government order for international students living in the country for online-only classes to return home.
Judge Allison Burroughs of the US District Court of Massachusetts has scheduled a Tuesday hearing for the case, which has left thousands of foreign students in limbo.
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division, which on Monday rescinded the right of international students to remain in the US while taking online-only courses – an allowance granted in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic – must file their responses to Harvard’s complaint by noon on Monday.
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Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolfe and Matthew Albence, ICE’s acting leader, are also named as defendants in the case.
Harvard and MIT will have 24 hours to file a reply, and then the hearing will start three hours later.
“The timeline Judge Burroughs has established is rightfully aggressive and we anticipate will allow for the issuance of a decision by July 15,” said William Lee, one of the lawyers representing Harvard and MIT.
“This timeline recognises that thousands of students at Harvard and MIT, as well as at colleges and universities across the country, need certainty as they prepare for the fall semester and to know that they will be allowed to continue their studies without threat of deportation,” Lee said.
Although some students at Harvard will be invited to live on campus in the upcoming academic year, including all first-year students during the fall semester, all course instruction, undergraduate and graduate, for the 2020-21 academic year will be delivered online, the school said on Monday. “Students will learn remotely, whether or not they live on campus,” Harvard’s announcement said.
ICE announced its policy change the same day, giving universities offering online-only instruction until July 15 to file “operational change plans”.
“The US Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programmes that are fully online for the fall semester nor will US Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States,” the agency said.
“Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programmes must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status.”
Schools offering a mix of online and in-person instruction to reduce the number of people on campus must issue certifications by August 4 for each international student remaining in the US for such a curriculum that they are taking a minimum number of online classes.
These certifications could number “in the thousands per university”, according to Harvard and MIT’s complaint.
Cornell University, Princeton and dozens of other schools have filed amicus briefs and taken other steps in an effort to strengthen the case against the ICE ruling.
“We are actively working with our elected representatives in Washington, DC, and with our peers and professional associations to change ICE’s stance,” Cornell President Martha Pollack said on Wednesday. “In addition, we are joining an amicus brief with our peer institutions in support of litigation filed by Harvard and MIT in the US District Court in Boston to prohibit enforcement of the order.”
The president of Northwestern University, Morton Schapiro, said he was “horrified” by ICE’s move when he announced his school’s plan to join the amicus brief.
“I want every one of our international students to know that your university community stands beside you in this painful moment,” Schapiro said. “You are not alone. We will support you in the days ahead.”
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