People are led on a tour on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass
People are led on a tour on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against the U.S. government over a policy change that would require international students to be on campus in person for classes this fall or lose their immigration status.  

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The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to prevent the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from changing the visa status of international students who study in an online-only format for the fall semester.

FILE - Students walk near the Widener Library in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Aug. 13, 2019.
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“ICE’s action leaves hundreds of thousands of international students with no educational options within the United States,” the suit reads. “Moreover, for many students, returning to their home countries to participate in online instruction is impossible, impracticable, prohibitively expensive, and/or dangerous.” 

Earlier this week, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced that “due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” international students enrolled in U.S. universities on an F-1 visa may not take all courses online. To maintain their visa status, students must transfer to a university offering in-person classes, or leave the country .

FILE - A student wearing a mask to protect against the coronavirus walks with others at Harvard University, before the school moved its classes to online-only, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 10, 2020.
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In a statement, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said ICE’s regulations disregard the health and safety of international students.  

The order was “without notice—its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness,” the statement read. 

The case argues that ICE’s order violates the Administrative Procedures Act, by not considering the effects it will have on universities who have spent time adjusting the upcoming semester, and the international students who may not be able to return to their country due to travel restrictions. 

MIT President L. Rafael Reif expressed his alliance with international students in an email to the MIT community. “MIT’s strength is its people – no matter where they come from,” he wrote.

Both universities are in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the suit was filed in federal court in Boston. There are more than 1 million international students in the U.S., with half from China and India.