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The following editorial appeared on Bloomberg Opinion:

By ordering foreign college students who are unable to take in-person classes this fall to leave the U.S., the Trump administration has plumbed new depths of heartless incompetence. At best, the order will cause needless anxiety and expense for both colleges and students. At worst, it might wreck college finances, destroy jobs and facilitate the spread of the coronavirus. Inflicting such harm for some presumed political gain is disgraceful.

U.S. immigration rules ban foreigners on student visas from enrolling in programs taught exclusively online. This is reasonable in normal times — in theory, virtual classes can be attended anywhere. But the coronavirus outbreak forced colleges to halt in-person instruction abruptly this spring, throwing their plans and those of their students into disarray.

In March, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency rightly announced it would waive the in-person requirement and allow 1 million international students in the U.S. to remain “for the duration of the emergency.” On July 6, ICE rescinded the waiver. Student-visa holders enrolled in schools that don’t resume in-person instruction must either transfer schools or return to their home countries. International students who are currently overseas will be banned from entering.

The policy is irresponsible on many levels. The vast majority of student-visa holders stayed in the U.S. during the lockdown, expecting to be able to continue their studies this fall. Under ICE’s order, they will have to start making arrangements to leave the country or face deportation, which would invalidate their visas and prevent them from returning to the U.S.

Administration officials say the intent of the new rules is to pressure colleges to reopen. Yet in much of the country, the health emergency that caused schools to close is getting worse. While a handful of institutions have announced plans to reopen fully in the fall, many remain reluctant to do so, given a shortage of adequate testing and protective equipment and the high probability of students’ contracting and spreading the virus in classrooms and dormitories.

The ICE order leaves colleges with an excruciating choice. They can rush to resume in-person instruction and put the lives of faculty, staff and students at risk; or enable the deportation of their foreign students, who contribute $45 billion annually to colleges and surrounding communities.

Schools that adopt hybrid models combining in-person and remote instruction will have to prove that each international student is attending physical classes — a significant administrative burden when many are already under heavy financial pressure. Even if schools find ways to comply, they will face the same dilemma should new outbreaks force them to close their doors again.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have lodged a legal challenge, and it’s to be hoped it succeeds. Regardless, the administration should reverse course immediately and allow visa holders to continue learning remotely until the pandemic subsides. Anything less is cruel to the students involved and betrays institutions that are vital to the country’s future.

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