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High-stakes hearing set for Tuesday in Harvard, MIT lawsuit challenging ICE rules on international students

Harvard Yard stood empty at the closed campus in Cambridge on April 20.
Harvard Yard stood empty at the closed campus in Cambridge on April 20.Adam Glanzman/Photographer: Adam Glanzman/Bloo

A federal judge in Boston has set Tuesday as the date for a high-stakes hearing in a lawsuit filed by Harvard and MIT challenging new rules issued this week that deny visas to international students whose fall classes are all online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The schools are requesting a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order to bar the federal government from enforcing the rules. Judge Allison D. Burroughs said Friday in US District Court that the hearing would begin at 3 p.m.

“We’ll go as late as we need to go,” Burroughs said Friday from the bench.

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The new federal guidelines would force many international students to leave the country or transfer to another college if classes are held online, putting pressure on administrators to reopen campuses. Many colleges and universities, including Harvard and MIT, plan to offer some or all of their classes online this fall in an effort to prevent the virus’s spread.

The government has until noon Monday to file its opposition to the schools’ request for an injunction, and Harvard and MIT will have until noon Tuesday to respond to that filing. Amicus briefs from interested parties must be filed by noon Monday.

Time is of the essence.

William F. Lee, a lawyer representing Harvard and MIT, said during Friday’s remote hearing that Wednesday of next week begins a “whole series of dates” where students must decide whether to enroll or defer their studies, and what coursework to take.

“Folks have to decide, quite honestly, what country they’re going to” pursue their studies in, Lee said.

During a hearing on the matter Thursday, Lee told Burroughs that an unnamed Harvard student from Belarus had been turned away Wednesday from an airport in Minsk, according to Bloomberg News.

Harvard and MIT filed the federal lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Wednesday, two days after Harvard announced that it plans to offer all undergraduate classes online this fall.

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MIT separately announced that it will invite only seniors to return to campus.

On Tuesday, President Trump slammed Harvard’s plan as “the easy way out” during a meeting at the White House where he pressured state and local officials to reopen schools for the fall.

In meetings and public statements this week, Trump has made it clear that reopening schools and colleges is a high priority for his administration. On Tuesday, he called Harvard’s plan for the fall “ridiculous,” despite recent spikes in coronavirus infections in many parts of the country.

In a letter Thursday, US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, US Representative Ayanna Pressley, and other members of Congress urged the heads of ICE and Homeland Security to abandon the planned change.

“The proposed policy throws the lives of hundreds of thousands of students, and the operations of hundreds of colleges and universities, into uncertainty just weeks before the start of the fall term, to the detriment of the United States and its institutions of higher education,” lawmakers said in the letter.

“We are concerned that ICE’s guidance is motivated not by public health considerations,” they continued, “but rather by animus toward immigrants, by a goal of forcing schools to reopen even as COVID-19 cases are rising, and by a desire to create an illusion of normalcy during this unprecedented public health emergency.”

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The planned change, they said, “demonstrates a callous disregard for the harm this policy inflicts on international students.”


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.