Harvard University and MIT pushed back on Wednesday against a new rule that would require international students to take classes in-person this fall in order to stay in the country.
The guidelines issued Monday by Immigration and Customs Enforcement said "students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States."
Students who are enrolled in such programs "must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction," according to federal immigration authorities.
In response, MIT and Harvard jointly filed suit against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security in federal court in Massachusetts.
"ICE threw Harvard and MIT — indeed, virtually all of higher education in the United States — into chaos," the suit said.
"The order came down without notice — its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness," Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said separately in a letter addressed to members of the Harvard community.
In the suit, the universities argue that ICE's decision "leaves universities across the country, including Harvard and MIT, in the untenable situation of either moving forward with their carefully calibrated, thoughtful and difficult decisions to proceed with their curricula fully or largely online in the fall of 2020 … or to attempt, with just weeks before classes resume, to provide in-person education despite the grave risk to public health and safety that such a change would entail."
"We ask the court to prevent ICE and DHS from enforcing the new guidance and to declare it unlawful," MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in an email to the MIT community.
"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," Harvard's President Bacow said.
"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," he added.
Harvard University had just announced that some students will be welcome on campus this fall semester, but classes would be taught online. MIT also said there would be fewer students back on campus and a combination of online and in-person instruction.
Other schools, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, have said they plan to hold some in-person classes, while the California State University System announced that all students, enrolled on 23 campuses, will take fall classes online.
Many colleges and universities are still in the process of determining what the upcoming academic year will look like.
Many U.S. schools rely on international enrollment. If those students cannot continue to study in the U.S., that would be a financial shock for a number of colleges and universities, according to Hafeez Lakhani, president of New York-based Lakhani Coaching.
"The new ICE guidelines continue to throw fuel on the fire of a pending tuition crisis among colleges that depend on international students," he said.
Further, "these policies deter international students from wanting to contribute intellectually and financially to the U.S. education ecosytem," Lakhani added.
International students in the U.S. contributed nearly $41 billion to the national economy in the 2018-2019 academic year, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. (By other accounts, the number is even higher.)