Trump and Harvard Spar Over Immigration, Relief Funding

2020 in Review: Harvard Sues Feds Over Immigration Policy


This story is part of The Crimson's Ten Stories That Shaped 2020 series. To view other parts, click here.

Policies enacted by the Trump administration during the coronavirus pandemic brought tensions between the administration and Harvard to a head, culminating in a lawsuit Harvard filed against the federal government in July.

The year's first public dust-up between President Donald Trump and Harvard occurred in April, when the University was slated to receive nearly $9 million in federal aid through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

After facing backlash from high-profile Republican lawmakers who took issue with Harvard receiving federal aid given the large size of the University’s endowment, Harvard announced it would direct all of the federal aid toward its financial aid programs.


Still, Trump stated in a press conference that the money was “not for Harvard” and requested Harvard should return it. The following day, Harvard announced it would not “seek or accept” the CARES funding.

Trump and Harvard next sparred over immigration, which the federal government clamped down on during the public health crisis. In June, Trump issued an executive order suspending temporary worker visas through the end of the calendar year, which impacted the immigration status of some international Harvard affiliates and “disappointed” Harvard administrators.

As universities began to roll out their plans for the 2020-2021 academic year, the federal government unveiled new immigration policies in July barring international students enrolled in universities only offering online courses from remaining in or entering the country. Around the same time, Trump criticized Harvard’s fall reopening plan, calling it “ridiculous.”

As a result of the federal immigration policies — which subjected international Harvard students living in the United States to possible deportation — authorities detained a Harvard-bound sophomore at an airport in Belarus.

Harvard and MIT swiftly filed a lawsuit in District Court in Boston against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seeking to bar the agencies from enforcing the guidelines. Several days later, the federal government walked back its policy.

President-elect Joe Biden will likely take a softer approach to student visas. Biden has said he believes international students should not face barriers to studying in the country. Bacow penned a letter to Biden in December congratulating him on his presidential victory and urging him to allow international students to receive student visa status even if their universities are operating fully remotely.

—Staff writer Natalie L. Kahn can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @natalielkahn.