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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was one of several universities that protested and filed lawsuits against a new visa restriction that would have forced international students to attend in-person classes or risk deportation.

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United States drops visa restriction on foreign students attending remote classes

The Trump administration agreed today to drop its controversial proposal to prevent international students from staying in the United States if they are taking all their courses online. The government had argued the students didn’t need to be in the country if all their coursework was offered remotely.

But university officials protested the 6 July directive from the Department of Homeland Security, saying it would disrupt the education of hundreds of thousands of students and send a message that they weren’t welcome on U.S. campuses. The announcement also didn’t explicitly distinguish undergraduate and graduate students—creating uncertainty among science and engineering graduate students who are focused on research and had no plans to enroll in courses this fall. The policy did not permit exemptions if there was a surge in COVID-19 cases near a university, causing an in-person or hybrid course to shift to an online-only format midsemester.

Last week, multiple universities filed suit to prevent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from implementing its new policy, on the grounds that the administration had failed to follow federal laws in drawing up the rule. Today, a federal judge in Boston announced that the government had agreed to rescind its directive. The settlement leaves intact a policy issued at the start of the coronavirus pandemic that allows foreign students to maintain their visas even if their courses are entirely online.

University officials and others quickly applauded the settlement. “I’m delighted and relieved that the government has rescinded a policy that was, in my view, not in the national interest. International students, both graduate and undergraduate, are an integral part of our community,” Christopher Stubbs, dean of science at Harvard University, wrote to ScienceInsider in an email.

And Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, released a statement saying she is “glad that the overwhelming outcry from America’s leading research universities, scientific research organizations, the business community, and others caused the administration to swiftly rescind this deeply misguided policy.”

Physicist Kumble R. Subbaswamy, the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, says that as someone who immigrated from India to the United States for his Ph.D studies he felt the ICE directive on "a personal level." Subbaswamy fears his adopted country has permanently harmed itself despite the settlement. "The decision makers either did not spend even minutes thinking about the impact on human lives, or didn’t care (or worse).  Even with the reversal, I worry about the serious damage done to this country’s position as the primary destination of choice for those seeking higher education, particularly in the sciences, " he emailed ScienceInsider.