The U.S. government’s shift to a new approach for how it penalizes international students and exchange visitors if they violate the terms of their visas drew a court challenge from four colleges and a student association.

An Aug. 9 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services policy memorandum says international students on F or M visas, or exchange visitors on J visas, start earning “unlawful presence” on the day their visas are violated. Under prior agency policy, they only would start to earn unlawful presence once the USCIS made a formal finding that they’d violated the terms of their visas.

The agency’s...