Price Center at UC San Diego
The Price Center at UC San Diego. Photo by Alex Hansen via Wikimedia Commons

In a stunning reversal of policy, the Trump administration on Tuesday abandoned an attempt to force out tens of thousands of foreign students following widespread condemnation of the move and pressure from colleges and major businesses.

U.S. officials announced last week that international students at schools that had moved to online-only classes due to the coronavirus pandemic would have to leave the country if they were unable to transfer to a college with in-person instruction.

There are more than a million foreign students at U.S. colleges and universities, with 160,000 in California alone, and many schools depend on revenue from foreign students, who often pay full tuition.

The announcement blindsided many universities and colleges that were still making plans for the fall semester, trying to balance concerns about rising cases of coronavirus in many U.S. states and the desire to return to classes.

A flurry of lawsuits were filed challenging the rule including one brought by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and another by a coalition of state governments. Dozens of big companies and colleges and universities filed “friend-of-the-court” briefs opposing the rule, including the University of California and University of San Diego.

The universities argued the measure was unlawful and would adversely affect their academic institutions.

In a highly anticipated court hearing on Tuesday in the case brought by Harvard, U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs in Massachusetts said the U.S. government and the two elite universities that sued had come to a settlement that would roll back the new rules and restore the previous status quo.

The hearing lasted less than four minutes.

In March, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement waived rules for international students on F-1 and M-1 visas that limit the number of online courses foreign students can take if they want to remain in the United States. The move came as schools shuttered campuses in response to the spreading coronavirus and public health lockdowns.

But on July 6, ICE abruptly reversed the policy without explanation.

The July 6 ICE guidance said foreign students could stay if their programs were in-person or offered a mix of online and on-campus instruction, but many universities had not yet settled on plans for the fall.

Harvard planned to hold all of its classes online for the upcoming academic year.

President Donald Trump, who is pushing schools across the country to reopen in the autumn, said he thought Harvard’s plan not to hold in-person classes was ridiculous.

Updated at 2 p.m., Tuesday, July 14, 2020