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International students may now enter or remain in the United States if they are taking an online-only course load this fall. Credit: Chase Sutton

The United States government rescinded recent restrictions barring international students from entering or staying in the country if they are taking an online-only course load this fall, federal judge Allison D. Burroughs announced on Tuesday.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security agreed to reinstate the guidelines it issued in March that permit nonimmigrant students to retain active F-1 visa status within the United States while taking online courses. 

On July 6, ICE announced that international students taking only online courses would be forced to study from overseas. Two days later, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit against the new rules set forth by DHS and ICE.

"We are extremely pleased that the federal government has rescinded its misguided policy that would ban international students from our country if they took online-only courses," Penn President Amy Gutmann wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. 

Penn, along with more than 55 other nationwide colleges and universities, submitted an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit on Sunday. After Harvard filed the lawsuit on July 8, all seven other Ivy League universities unanimously joined by filing an amicus brief.

“Penn joined with universities nationwide in staunchly opposing the government’s move to initiate this ban, which was a capricious and cruel effort to set a different and unfair standard for international students,” Gutmann wrote. “We are unrelenting in our commitment to continue fighting for our international students to ensure that they are treated as equal members of our educational community.”

Director of International Student and Scholar Services Rodolfo Altamirano said his team is savoring the victory after a week of intense stress. 

“It’s a great celebration for universities across the United States, as well as for the University of Pennsylvania,” International Student and Scholar Services Director Rodolfo Altamirano said. “There’s no fear. There’s no anxiety. It’s a big, big relief for all of us.”

ICE’s restrictions exacerbated the heavy load of concerns many international students were carrying amid travel bans, coronavirus-related health risks, and difficulties scheduling visa appointments.

On Monday and Tuesday, before today’s reversal, over 1,000 international students attended the two virtual halls hosted by ISSS to discuss Penn’s response to the U.S. government’s recent restrictions on international students and online courses for fall 2020.

“It’s been very disappointing as we’ve watched our students struggle to make sense of information that is pretty hard to understand,” Associate Vice Provost for Global Initiatives Amy Gadsden said.

In response to ICE’s guidelines, many international students spent the past week rushing to register for in-person courses. Although the majority of classes this fall are expected to be online, some professors felt compelled to offer in-person opportunities to protect international students from potential deportation under the new policy.

Now that ICE has walked back its strict guidelines, universities operating only online and those implementing a hybrid model, like Penn, can continue to encourage remote learning this fall without the threat of deportation looming over international students.

“This is excellent news,” Gadsden said. “It really helps our students and allows us to approach the fall to put together the best program for our students and our community.”

Altamirano said ISSS will provide students with more information once the office knows the details of the policy reversal.

“For now, it’s a big win,” Altamirano said.

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