Under legal pressure, the US government reverses rule that targeted international students

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

In response to a lawsuit supported by Northeastern, the Department of Homeland Security has rescinded its July 6 order that threatened to bar international students from remaining in the United States if they take classes exclusively online this fall.

The change in policy means there is no mandatory in-person requirement for students who participate in online courses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Rescinding the rule announced last week benefits everyone—international students, universities, and the United States as a whole,” said Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern. “American higher education has always been one of the principal magnets of global talent to the U.S. We must continue to make our universities, and our nation, a welcome place for students and scholars from all over the world. I am grateful to all in the Northeastern community, and beyond, who fought successfully to overturn the original rule.”

The ruling, announced by Judge Allison D. Burroughs at U.S. District Court in Massachusetts on Tuesday, came in response to a lawsuit brought July 8 by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That suit was supported by Northeastern, as was a similar action that was filed Monday by the attorneys general of 17 states and the District of Columbia.

A number of lawsuits had been filed against Homeland Security since its surprising declaration last week that international students would not be allowed to stay in the U.S. unless they attended in-person classes. The edict was characterized in a court filing by Maura Healey, attorney general of Massachusetts, as a “cruel, abrupt, and unlawful action to expel international students amidst the pandemic that has wrought death and disruption across the United States.”

Both of the Northeastern-sponsored lawsuits argued that the government’s decree would cause harm to students and universities, as well as to the U.S. economy and public health overall. 

The hearing on Tuesday in Boston lasted less than five minutes as Burroughs declared that Homeland Security had agreed to return to its previous protocols, which had been formulated in March and widely characterized as a sensible response to the pandemic.

Prior to Tuesday’s announcement, Northeastern had believed that its more than 13,000 international students would be allowed to stay in the U.S. based on the university’s adoption of Hybrid NUflex, which combines in-person and online learning. The university nonetheless made a stand against the federal measure, with Aoun predicting that it would lead to “chaos” by subverting public health interests during the pandemic. 

“On behalf of our international students and our global community, we celebrate this decision,” said Jigisha B. Patel, the university’s associate general counsel and chief advisor for international and immigration services. “Northeastern University continues to advocate for our international students, and we hope to see more guidance from the federal government that provides our students with the support that they need and deserve during this public-health crisis.”

Until the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States, federal regulations allowed international students studying in the U.S. to take just one class online each academic term. The rules were adjusted in March to permit international students to remain in the U.S. while studying entirely online as universities across the country shut down in-person teaching in accordance with public health guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Over the past four months, Patel said, the Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) had been offering constructive guidance that enabled international students to maintain their affiliations with universities and colleges in the U.S. 

That changed on July 6, when Homeland Security announced that the COVID-19 exemptions would be discontinued in the fall, and that international students would be limited to no more than one class online at universities that are returning to full in-person classes. The now-rescinded regulation would have forced international students of schools offering exclusively online courses to either transfer or leave the U.S.

Northeastern’s Office of Global Services is providing updates on the rules and hosting several webinars to help international students navigate them. Additionally, the university is offering guidance and resources on immigration issues.

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