The Trump administration on Tuesday backed down from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement rule change requiring foreign students on visas to attend some classes in-person this fall or be forced to leave the country.
The news came during a court hearing over a lawsuit brought by Harvard and MIT, which argued the decision was made recklessly and would pressure schools to open their doors amid the coronavirus pandemic.
ICE policy now reverts back to guidance the agency issued in March, Massachusetts District Court Judge Allison Burroughs said. ICE had extended flexibility to international students early in the COVID-19 outbreak, allowing schools to comply with public health guidance and modify plans for instruction. At the time, the agency did not provide assurances about the fall semester. Government attorney Ray Farquhar conceded the move in a brief session before the Boston federal court Tuesday.
The rule posed a threat to more than 1 million students studying in the U.S. from abroad. According to the Institute of International Education, there were 1,095,299 international students in the U.S. in 2019, the fourth consecutive year that sum reached more than 1 million.
The decision to reverse course came just before the government's Wednesday deadline for universities to submit a change of plans.
Last week, ICE's Student and Exchange Visitor Program announced it would resume in-person requirements. It meant a student would be forced to leave the U.S. or transfer schools if their university planned to move course work entirely online. The announcement ignited a firestorm of backlash from across the country with Harvard and MIT among the first to file legal challenges.
"The order came down without notice -- its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness," Harvard President Larry Bacow said in a statement last Wednesday. "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."
While noting the possibility that the administration still might try to issue some restrictions, Bacow on Tuesday called the reversal "a significant victory" in a note to students, parents and faculty.
"This means we expect that the 2020-2021 academic year will proceed as we have carefully planned, in our effort both to protect the health and safety of our students and others and to ensure that learning can go on in the best possible way under the current unprecedented circumstances," Bacow wrote.
Several other lawsuits followed, including a challenge from a group of 18 states led by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. New York, California and Washington each filed separate challenges in addition to Johns Hopkins University and the University of California public school network.
Hours before the hearing, The Wall Street Journal reported White House officials were considering backing down from the newly announced change while leaving open the option of applying the rules only to incoming students.
ABC's Sophie Tatum and Jack Arnholz contributed to this report.