WASHINGTON: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University on Wednesday filed a joint lawsuit against the Trump administration’s move to deport foreign students unless they took in-person courses, even as universities across America raced against time to devise ways to retain their international contingent.
In a complaint filed before a Massachusetts court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, MIT and Harvard said the announcement by the Trump administration’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that foreign students cannot stay in the US taking only online courses in the time of the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted international student life and jeopardized their academic research pursuits.
“ICE’s action leaves hundreds of thousands of international students with no educational options within the United States. Just weeks from the start of the fall semester, these students are largely unable to transfer to universities providing on-campus instruction, notwithstanding ICE’s suggestion that they might do so to avoid removal from the country. Moreover, for many students, returning to their home countries to participate in online instruction is impossible, impracticable, prohibitively expensive, and/or dangerous,” the lawsuit said.

Arguing that the ability to provide remote education during the pandemic is of paramount importance to universities across the country because Covid-19 is a highly contagious disease that spreads from human to human in close contact situations, the lawsuit maintained that “densely populated classrooms that are attendant with on-campus instruction have the potential to turn into “super-spreader” situations that endanger the health of not only the university community, but also those in the surrounding areas and anyone else with whom community members may come into contact.”
Indeed, in recognition of the exceptional risk of indoor congregation, Harvard has limited undergraduate on-campus residency to 40% of capacity for the upcoming term. Similarly, MIT has limited undergraduate on-campus residency for the fall to members of the rising senior class and a limited number of additional students, it added.
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The lawsuit, which is expected to be backed by other US institutions and academia, came even as university dons began devising ways to meet the ICE criteria for foreign students to remain in status, although the short timeline made this tough. Leaders in academia meanwhile sought to re-assure both extant and prospective students that they continue to be valued and will not be abandoned.
“Our international students now have many questions – about their visas, their health, their families and their ability to continue working toward an MIT degree. Unspoken, but unmistakable, is one more question: Am I welcome? At MIT, the answer, unequivocally, is yes.” MIT President Rafael Reif said in letter to the MIT community.

“MIT’s strength is its people – no matter where they come from. I know firsthand the anxiety of arriving in this country as a student, excited to advance my education, but separated from my family by thousands of miles. I also know that welcoming the world’s brightest, most talented and motivated students is an essential American strength,” Reif wrote.
Imparting education to foreign students at its nearly 5,000 universities and colleges, which currently host more than one million international pupils, has long been considered the United States’ most potent soft power weapon. But immigration hardliners in the Trump dispensation have voiced deep suspicion that many foreign students take away “American jobs” and eventually become US citizens, which they regard as inimical to their nativist view of the country.
Most US campuses are also seen as liberal bastions, viewed with resentment by Trump’s MAGA constituency. There is also deep distrust in the administration about the nearly 400,000 Chinese students in the US.who are seen as agents sent by Beijing to facilitate China’s global rise at the expense of the United States.


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