International college freshmen may be barred after all

Harvard says federal reversal only applies to returning students 

A HARVARD UNIVERSITY dean told students in an email Tuesday that incoming international freshmen will not be able to come to campus this fall due to federal visa restrictions.

The message came one week after US Immigration and Customs Enforcement abandoned an order that would have barred foreign students this fall if their college or university is only offering online classes.

The move by the Trump administration was challenged in federal court by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On July 14, in a hearing on the lawsuit, US District Court Judge Allison Burroughs announced that the government was dropping the federal immigration directive.

That prompted expressions of relief by colleges and foreign students whose studies would have been disrupted by the order.

In the surprise clarification on Tuesday, however, Harvard said the government’s reversal did not apply to freshmen.

All of Harvard’s undergraduate courses will be online this fall, according to the university, making entering foreign students ineligible to enter the country. The ban will apply to around 200 incoming Harvard freshmen.

The email, sent to students by Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College, was first reported by the Harvard Crimson.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversees the student visa program, did not reply immediately to requests for comment. Harvard has not elaborated on discussions between the university and ICE that brought about the announcement.

But Khurana made clear in his email to students that the university strongly objected to the restriction on newly-admitted foreign students. “We abhor any policies that seek to force us to choose between our community’s health and the education of our international students,“ he wrote in the message, which was shared with CommonWealth by two rising sophomore students.

Khurana said Harvard was working with members of the state’s congressional delegation to try to reverse the ban on entering freshmen, but said the university does not anticipate any change to the policy in time for the fall semester.

Eliana Nader, chair of the New England Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, raised the possibility that the policy could be overturned. “I am cautiously optimistic that this will be litigated successfully in the courts, as so many lawsuits against this policy are still pending,” Nader said in a statement. “In the Harvard litigation, my understanding is that Judge Burroughs has kept the case open for additional filings by either side.”

Khurana said students have until July 31 to decide whether they will defer their enrollment or take online courses from their home countries. He said the university’s Office for International Education will be in touch with affected students.

“I recognize that our first-year international students now face a stressful and difficult decision,” Khurana wrote. “I am hopeful that brighter days are ahead.”

International students who are not freshmen and have a student visa can remain in the US legally under a March 2020 directive from ICE, even if they’re only taking online courses.

Nader decried the Trump administration’s targeting of incoming foreign freshmen. “There is no reason to exclude some students while admitting others, other than to cause hardship and anxiety to foreign students during an already anxious and uncertain time,” she said. “It is another attack on immigrants that serves no purpose other than to be just that: an attack on immigrants.”

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Harvard University and MIT have a combined 9,000 international students, including incoming freshmen. Attorney General Maura Healey previously said the state has over 77,000 foreign students.