Harvard, MIT Sue Immigration Authorities Over Rule Barring International Students from Online-Only Universities


UPDATED: July 8, 2020, at 11:30 p.m.

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit in District Court in Boston Wednesday morning against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to University President Lawrence S. Bacow.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to bar DHS and ICE from enforcing federal guidelines barring international students attending colleges and universities offering only online courses from staying in the United States.

The guidelines would mandate that they transfer to an institution offering in-person instruction or risk “immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”


“The order came down without notice—its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness,” Bacow wrote in an email to affiliates. “We believe that the ICE order is bad public policy, and we believe that it is illegal.”

DHS did not respond to requests for comment. ICE declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit.

The guidelines were released just hours after Harvard announced it would house no more than 40 percent of undergraduates and would hold all College classes online in the fall. The lawsuit repeatedly states that the announcement created “chaos” at Harvard, MIT, and universities nationwide.

“We will pursue this case vigorously so that our international students—and international students at institutions across the country—can continue their studies without the threat of deportation,” Bacow wrote.

Northeastern University announced in a tweet Wednesday afternoon that it was joining the lawsuit against DHS and ICE. The university has the third-highest number of international students in the United States.

Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton University also announced they will sign amicus briefs in support of the lawsuit.

The move by immigration authorities sparked legal action almost immediately — Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced Tuesday that her office “will sue” over the guidelines, which she called “cruel” and “illegal.”

Still, Bacow and Harvard chose not to wait for Healey’s suit. Their case argues that the guidelines violated the Administrative Procedure Act by failing to consider “important aspects of the problem” in advance of its release, failing to provide a reasonable basis for the policy, and failing to adequately notify the public.

Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda J. Claybaugh said in a panel Monday that Vice Provost for International Affairs Mark C. Elliott is also contacting ambassadors on behalf of international students.

“As a university with a profound commitment to residential education, we hope and intend to resume full in-person instruction as soon as it is safe and responsible to do so,” Bacow wrote. “But, until that time comes, we will not stand by to see our international students’ dreams extinguished by a deeply misguided order. We owe it to them to stand up and to fight—and we will.”

Asked about the lawsuit, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that “the policy speaks for itself.”

“You don’t get a visa for taking online classes from, let’s say, the University of Phoenix, so why would you if you were just taking online classes generally?” McEnany said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference.

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.