In a surprise announcement, District Judge Allison D. Burroughs, U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, announced a reversal of the government decision that was announced just last week regarding students in F-1 or M-1 nonimmigrant status. Foreign students will now be able to enter the United States and remain even if they are only taking online courses. The government agreed to resume the flexibility it had announced in March when COVID-19 forced most colleges and universities to go online.
On July 6, 2020, ICE sent higher education into chaos by announcing a last-minute change from that flexibility. Colleges and universities that had been working on re-opening plans for months were being asked either to turn on a dime and create new plans immediately that included in-person teaching or to forgo having foreign nationals on campus. This was not only disruptive to the schools; it also wreaked havoc on the lives of the students who had already made plans for the fall semester, including housing and travel. More significantly, the announcement dashed the dreams of many students and had the potential to harm the universities financially – possibly depriving them of needed tuition payments. Some members of Congress writing to USCIS and DHS called the sudden change “cruel and unconscionable.” They noted that the over one million foreign nationals who attend universities across the country are important not only for the talent and diversity they bring, but also for the financial support that they give to the universities and to the economy. In one recent year, international students added close to $41 billion to the U.S. economy leading to the creation of 458,290 jobs.
The change in policy led to two suits in the United States District Court in Massachusetts – one filed by the two prominent universities that was joined by close to 200 other institutions, and another filed by the Attorney General of Massachusetts that was joined by the states of Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia in a separate suit in the District of Massachusetts challenging the Administration’s order. Suits also had been filed by the California Attorney General on behalf of colleges and universities in that state.
It appears that the likelihood of a quick and decisive loss led the Administration to back down. For some time, it has been creating an unwelcoming atmosphere for foreign students. Perhaps this reversal of policy will help turn the tide.