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Court Decision Postponed on Federal Rule Targeting Foreign Students

FILE - A gate opens to the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass., Dec. 13, 2018.

A federal judge postponed taking action Friday in a lawsuit filed by two universities against the U.S. government, while the state of California filed a separate lawsuit over federal guidance that foreign students who take online-only classes will lose their immigration status.

U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs announced she would wait until next week to decide whether to issue a temporary order to stop the directive, announced by U.S. immigration officials Monday, that requires international students to attend classes on campus in person.

American colleges and universities are grappling with how to hold classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many opting to conduct some or all courses online for the upcoming semester.

Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology challenged the federal rule, saying it would throw U.S. higher education into chaos, forcing schools to scramble to arrange in-person classes while ignoring risks to public health.

In a short hearing held by videoconference, Burroughs said she would wait to review the government's opposition to a temporary order, to be filed Monday. A full hearing on the matter is expected Tuesday.

Some foreign students left the U.S. earlier in the year as the pandemic shuttered campuses nationwide. Others have been sheltering in the U.S. and taking online courses to continue their studies.

International students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, according to the Institute of International Education.

A second lawsuit

Thursday, the state of California also sued the Trump administration over the foreign student directive. California's state universities and community colleges argue the rule harms international students as well as colleges and universities that will lose revenue.

About 40,000 international undergraduate and graduate students were enrolled at the nine campuses of the University of California, according to 2019 enrollment figures. In addition, according to the website edsource, the California Community Colleges chancellor estimated that the rule could affect 20,000 students, and California State University estimated 11,300 students at its campuses would be affected.

Meanwhile, the University of Southern California announced it would offer in-person classes at no additional cost to international students to help them maintain their visa status.

Student stopped at Belarus airport

The impact of the Trump administration's guidance is already being felt. During a Thursday hearing, an attorney representing Harvard, Bill Lee, said a university student from Belarus was not allowed to enter the U.S. because of the new guideline.

"Quite honestly, your honor, we are getting flooded with inquiries and requests because of the policies being enforced at the borders as we speak," Lee said in court.

ICE's directive

The recent guidance, released Monday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, halts an exemption, prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, that allowed students on some visas to take classes online while schools were shuttered.

Now, if a college or university offers only online courses, foreign students enrolled there must transfer to another institution with in-person classes or leave the United States.

Ken Cuccinelli, a top official at the Department of Homeland Security, said Tuesday on CNN that the policy was created to "encourage schools to reopen."

"We're providing and looking at providing so much flexibility to allow those openings to happen in a variety of ways. That doesn't mean there aren't still basic protections that are required," he said.