The Trump administration says students' visas will be revoked if their classes are entirely online

The University of Rochester pushed back Tuesday against a new federal directive that international students studying remotely will not be permitted to stay in the United States.

International students make up about a third of all students at UR, one of the highest percentages in the country. That has been a notable trend over the last 20 years and an important source of both revenue and ethnic diversity for the school.

The Trump administration announced Monday that if colleges and universities do not allow students back on campus in the fall, their international students' visas will be revoked. Those students will have to either transfer schools or leave the country.

"If they’re not going to be a student or they’re going to be 100 percent online, then they don’t have a basis to be here," Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, said.

No local college, including UR, has announced a plan to hold all classes solely online in the fall. But some programs within UR, including the Warner School of Education, are not planning to meet in person at all in the fall.

"This misguided policy ... jeopardizes public health broadly and the safety of thousands of international students nationwide who will be forced to suddenly return home," the university wrote in a statement. "When correlated to the largely disrupted international travel landscape, its requirements for departure will be difficult and dangerous to enact from a practical perspective."

"We therefore join with other U.S. higher education institutions to strongly urge the administration to rescind this guidance and provide temporary flexibility to permit international students to participate in the range of in-person, online, and hybrid instruction that we are all implementing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic."

UR spokeswoman Sara Miller said administrators are still working to determine who will be affected and what the school can do about it.

Meanwhile, two Ivy League universities are suing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and ICE over the new policy. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday challenging the Trump administration's decision to bar international students from staying in the U.S. if they take classes entirely online this fall.

The lawsuit, filed in Boston's federal court, seeks to prevent federal immigration authorities from enforcing the rule. The universities contend that the directive violates the Administrative Procedures Act because officials failed to offer a reasonable basis justifying the policy and because the public was not given notice to comment on it.

In a statement, the U.S. State Department said that while international students are welcome in the U.S., the policy “provides greater flexibility for nonimmigrant students to continue their education in the United States, while also allowing for proper social distancing on open and operating campuses across America.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement notified colleges Monday that international students will be forced to leave the U.S. or transfer to another college if their schools operate entirely online this fall. New visas will not be issued to students at those schools, and others at universities offering a mix of online and in-person classes will be barred from taking all of their classes online.

The guidance says international students won't be exempt even if an outbreak forces their schools online during the fall term.

The guidance was released the same day Harvard announced it would be keeping its classes online this fall. Harvard says the directive would prevent many of Harvard's 5,000 international students from remaining the U.S.

Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said the order came without notice and that its “cruelty” was surpassed only by its "recklessness.”

“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 other,” Bacow said in a statement Wednesday. "This comes at a time when the United States has been setting daily records for the number of new infections, with more than 300,000 new cases reported since July 1.”

The guidelines have provoked backlash from universities across the U.S. who say international students have an important place in their communities. Many schools have also come to depend on tuition revenue from international students, who typically pay higher tuition rates.

It creates an urgent dilemma for thousands of international students who became stranded in the U.S. last spring after the coronavirus forced their schools to move online. Those attending schools that are staying online must “depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction,” according to the guidance.

Dozens of colleges have said they plan to offer at least some classes in person this fall, but some say it’s too risky. The University of Southern California last week reversed course on a plan to bring students to campus, saying classes will be hosted primarily or exclusively online.

In Rochester, Lea Thome, a junior political science major from Germany and president of UR's Undergraduate Political Science and International Relations Council, created an online petition protesting the policy on Monday. Two days later it has exceeded 250,000 signatures.

"Many international students come to the United States for the opportunities, resources, financial aid and scholarships that are not accessible to them in their home countries," she wrote. "Returning home would force many international students to pause their studies because they might not have access to the resources they need such as the internet, electricity or other."

Sampson Hao, president of the Chinese Students Association, said he was optimistic most UR students wouldn't be affected by the policy.

He added that the new federal policy ignores the non-academic benefits of education.

"When you go to school, knowledge is not the only thing you get," Hao said. "You build a network with professors and other people on campus. ... That's a very important aspect as well."

No other Rochester-area college approaches UR in its international student enrollment. The most recent federal data shows that Rochester Institute of Technology, Roberts Wesleyan College and Hobart and William Smith Colleges all have between 4% and 7% percent international undergraduate enrollment.

Includes reporting from Associated Press education writer Collin Binkley