Updated at 6:34 p.m. ET
In a swift reversal, the Trump administration has agreed to rescind a directive that would have barred international college students from the U.S. if their colleges offered classes entirely online in the fall semester.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement rule change, released last week, would have prohibited foreign students from entering or remaining in the country to take fully online course loads. A number of colleges and universities had already announced plans to offer online-only classes because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The agency’s July 6 announcement was met with immediate backlash.
Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the U.S. government in federal court two days later, calling the directive “arbitrary and capricious” and seeking to have it reversed and declared unlawful.
Many colleges, universities, municipalities and tech companies expressed their support for the legal challenge in their own court filings.
In Tuesday’s session at the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, the universities were expected to make arguments saying that this rule was onerous for schools and even dangerous for students.
Instead, Judge Allison Burroughs announced that the schools had reached an agreement with ICE and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security. She said the government will rescind this policy.
“The Court was informed by the parties that they have come to a resolution to the combined temporary restraining order/preliminary injunction motions,” read the court docket. “The Government has agreed to rescind the July 6, 2020 Policy Directive and the July 7, 2020 FAQ, and has also agreed to rescind their implementation.”
With the new directive rescinded “on a nationwide basis,” schools will follow ICE guidance from March that allows flexibility regarding student visa eligibility.
ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday afternoon.
The Department of Homeland Security had previously stood by its decision in a legal response on Monday, saying the request for leniency “subverts the deference afforded administrative agencies in complex and interrelated fields like immigration enforcement.”
According to the nonprofit Institute of International Education, more than 1 million higher education students in the U.S. — about 5% of the total student body — come from overseas.
Last week’s rule change left many scrambling to figure out their plans.
In order to remain in lawful status, students already in the country would have needed to transfer to a school with in-person instruction, which presented both logistical and public health challenges.
Sumana Kaluvai, an international student from India who graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles last year, created a Google Doc-turned-website to help international students find in-person classes.
She welcomed Tuesday’s news.
“It makes me feel so relieved, and I think it’s just proof that universities have a lot more power than we realize, and I’m glad that they took such quick action,” Kaluvai said.
Many colleges and universities had already begun taking steps to retain their international students.
Some announced or reiterated their fall semester plans for a hybrid model of in-person and remote instruction, under which students could stay in the U.S.
Others also began making arrangements for individualized in-person instruction should health conditions require them to convert to online-only operations.
In one example, Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken wrote in a July 8 statement that she had talked to most faculty members, and each one had volunteered to offer a one-on-one tutorial to international students to help them avoid deportation.
“One of my colleagues told me that he would teach outside in the snow if he needed to,” she added.
Pablo Ortiz, a vice president of Florida International University, oversees the school’s international students and global campuses and welcomed the reversal but said administrators will continue planning for multiple scenarios so as not to be caught off guard again.
They were in the process of reworking about 3,500 student course schedules for compliance when news of the reversal became public.
“We were happy to hear that but we are cautiously optimistic that it will remain as such, and we will be ready for any decisions that are made,” Ortiz said.
International students often pay full tuition, meaning that many of the schools attached to the now-resolved lawsuit would have faced big financial losses.
So would the economy itself: one analysis showed that international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $41 billion during the 2018-2019 academic year, and supported more than 458,200 jobs.
Still, Tuesday’s announcement was not universally cheered.
Dan Stein, president of Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for lower levels of immigration, issued a statement denouncing the move as “caving to the pressure of the business lobby and open borders advocates.”