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COVID-19: Harvard and MIT sue US government over new immigration rule for international students

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Students walk near the Widener Library in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. in August 2019.
Students walk near the Widener Library in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. in August 2019.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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Two of the United States' most prestigious universities, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), are taking the Trump administration to court over its decision to revoke visas for international students if classes are carried out entirely online in the autumn.

Harvard and MIT's federal lawsuit calls on the court to prevent the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department for Homeland Security from enforcing new guidance issued earlier this week and to declare it unlawful.

ICE announced on Monday that international students will not be able to stay in the country if the universities they attend exclusively hold classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students can either transfer to another institution that provides in-person or hybrid (both in-person and online) instruction or leave the country altogether. If they do, they face the prospect of not being allowed back in later and if they refuse to comply, they will be deported.

Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said in a letter that "the order came down without notice — its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness."

"It appears that it was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others," he added.

He also noted that it "comes at a time when the United States has been setting daily records for the number of new infections, with more than 300,000 new cases reported since July 1."

MIT President L. Rafel Reif said in a statement that ICE's "announcement disrupts our international students' lives and jeopardized their academic and research pursuits."

"ICE is unable to offer the most basic answers about how its policy will be interpreted or implemented. And the guidance comes after many US colleges and universities either released or are readying their final decisions for the fall — decisions designed to advance their educational mission and protect the health and safety of their communities," he added.

Harvard announced earlier this week that only 40 per cent of undergraduate students will be allowed on campus in the autumn, but all instruction is to be delivered online.

MIT will also limit the number of undergraduates on campus with the priority given to senior students. Many graduate and research staff will also be allowed. Instruction will be entirely online for undergraduates away from campus while those back at the institution will receive a combination of online and in-person instruction.

The US is the world's most severely hit country by the COVID-19. As of Tuesday, it had recorded more than 131,000 fatalities and nearly 3 million confirmed cases, according to figures released by Johns Hopkins University.