Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration’s plan strip international students of their visas if all of their classes move online due to coronavirus.
The states filed their lawsuit on Monday, marking the latest legal effort to block the policy that would bar foreign students from remaining in the United States if their universities are not holding any in-person classes this fall.
Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology led the way by filing their own lawsuit against the Trump administration last Wednesday.
More than 200 other universities – including the entire Ivy League – threw their weight behind the lawsuit by filing amicus briefs over the weekend.
One brief signed by 59 schools on Sunday argued that the rule throws their plans into disarray with less than a month before some schools start the fall term.
They challenged the policy’s legal grounds and say it forces schools across the nation to ‘choose between opening their campuses regardless of the public health risks, or forcing their international students to leave the country’.
Fifty-nine US universities have filed a brief supporting a lawsuit by Harvard and MIT over the Trump administration’s plan to strip international students of their visas if all their classes move online. The schools argued that the policy has caused ‘significant harm and turmoil’
The Trump administration’s July 6 announcement blindsided academic institutions grappling with the challenges of safely resuming classes amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
It came as the US government has been trying to get schools and universities to reopen by autumn – while many, including Harvard, are planning to hold all classes online to prevent spreading the virus among their students.
About 1.1 million foreign students attended US higher education institutions in the 2018-19 school year, according to a report by the State Department and the Institute of International Education (IIE), and they made up 5.5 percent of the entire US higher education enrollment.
What Trump’s new policy means for international students
The Trump administration declared on July 6 that it would not allow foreign students to remain in the country if all of their classes are moved online because of the COVID-19 crisis.
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 issued by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The guidelines provide additional pressure for universities to reopen even amid growing concerns about the recent spread of COVID-19 among young adults.
Under the updated rules, international students must take at least some of their classes in person.
New visas will not be issued to students at schools or programs that are entirely online.
And even at colleges offering a mix of in-person and online courses this fall, international students will be barred from taking all their classes online.
It creates an urgent dilemma for thousands of international students who became stranded in the US last spring after the coronavirus forced their schools to move away from in-person classes.
The group behind Sunday’s brief includes all of Harvard’s companions in the Ivy League and other prestigious schools including Stanford and Duke universities.
They collectively enroll more than 213,000 international students, according to the brief.
‘These students are core members of our institutions,’ the schools wrote. ‘They make valuable contributions to our classrooms, campuses and communities – contributions that have helped make American higher education the envy of the world.’
The universities said they relied on federal guidance, which was to remain ‘in effect for the duration of the emergency’, allowing international students to attend all-online courses during the pandemic.
‘The emergency persists, yet the government’s policy has suddenly and drastically changed, throwing amici’s preparations into disarray and causing significant harm and turmoil,’ they added.
In their lawsuit, Harvard and MIT argued that the Trump administration’s order is ’illegal’ and asked the court for a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunctions that would prevent immigration authorities from enforcing new guidelines.
Judge Allison D Burroughs will preside over a Tuesday hearing on the request for the temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.
During the hearing Harvard and MIT will need to prove that they are likely to win the lawsuit on its merits and that the guidelines will cause irreparable harm if they are enforced while the litigation is in process.
If Judge Burroughs does not suspend the rule, colleges across the US will have until Wednesday to notify ICE if they plan to be fully online this fall.
The Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration (PAHEI) – a coalition of university chancellors and presidents that aims to increase public understanding of how immigration policies impact education – also filed a brief on behalf of 180 member schools on Friday.
The PAHEI brief centers around how schools relied on guidance issued by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the start of the pandemic in March – which was supposed to be in effect ‘for the duration of the emergency’ – while planning for the fall semester.
It argues that the new guidance issued by ICE will place ‘significant burdens’ on international students, many of whom were stranded in the US when spring classes were cancelled.
Johns Hopkins University, which has been leading coronavirus research in the US while keeping a widely-used tally of cases, also filed a lawsuit seeking to block the Trump administration’s rule on Friday.
The lawsuit filed in the US District Court for Washington DC states that the new ICE police ‘completely upended’ Johns Hopkins plans for the fall semester.
Nearly 5,000 international students are enrolled at the school in Baltimore.
California filed a lawsuit against the rule last week, and 17 other states followed its lead by suing the Trump administration on Monday.
The states included in that suit, filed in Boston federal court, are: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.
The states accused the administration of violating the Administrative Procedure Act with the new ICE policy.
‘The Trump administration didn’t even attempt to explain the basis for this senseless rule, which forces schools to choose between keeping their international students enrolled and protecting the health and safety of their campuses,’ Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement announcing the suit.
In a lawsuit filed last Wednesday in the US District Court for Massachusetts, Harvard (pictured) and MIT asked a judge to temporarily block the rule that would bar foreign students from remaining in the US if their universities are not holding any in-person classes this fall
The lawsuit from Harvard and MIT (pictured) argues that Trump’s new policy is ‘illegal’
The State Department responded to the uproar over the ICE policy last week, saying that international students are still welcome in the US.
The agency said 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’.
According to the new ICE guidelines, international students will have their visas revoked unless they take at least some of their classes in person.
Those attending school that are staying entirely online must ‘depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction’.
Harvard had announced that it would move fall classes online hours before the new guidelines were issued.
The school said that 40 percent of undergraduates would be allowed to return to the campus in Cambridge, but their instruction would be conducted remotely.
President Donald Trump lashed out at the university’s decision last Tuesday.
‘I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s an easy way out. And I think they ought to be ashamed of themselves,’ Trump said at a White House roundtable discussion, during which he called for schools and universities to reopen for the next semester.
Trump, who is campaigning for reelection in November, has taken a bullish approach to reopening the country even as virus infections continue to spike, particularly the south and west.
‘Everybody wants it. The moms want it. The dads want it. The kids want it. It’s time to do it,’ he said.
‘We want to get our schools open, we want to get them open quickly, beautifully, in the fall.’
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended the administration’s visa actions at a news conference earlier last week.
‘You don’t get a visa for taking online classes from, let’s say, University of Phoenix. So why would you if you were just taking online classes, generally?’ McEnany told reporters.
‘Perhaps the better lawsuit would be coming from students who have to pay full tuition with no access to in-person classes to attend.’
President Trump held a roundtable discussion to promote the reopening of American schools last Tuesday (pictured). During the event he called Harvard’s move to hold all fall classes online ‘ridiculous’
Harvard’s President Lawrence Bacow shot back with a letter to the school community on Wednesday.
Bacow claimed that with the order the Trump administration is threatening to force educational institutions to open despite the ongoing dangers of the coronavirus pandemic.
He added that the ‘cruelty’ of the order was ‘surpassed only by its recklessness’.
Harvard President Lawrence Bacow (pictured) accused the Trump administration of trying to force universities to reopen despite ongoing dangers from the coronavirus pandemic
‘Within the last hour, we filed pleadings together with MIT in the US District Court in Boston seeking a temporary restraining order prohibiting enforcement of the order,’ Bacow wrote.
‘We will pursue this case vigorously so that our international students – and international students at institutions across the country – can continue their studies without the threat of deportation.’
Bacow added that the order ‘was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall’ but came at a time of record new coronavirus cases across the county.
‘We believe that the ICE order is bad public policy, and we believe that it is illegal,’ he wrote.
‘We will not stand by to see our international students’ dreams extinguished by a deeply misguided order. We owe it to them to stand up and to fight—and we will.’
Bacow railed against the new ICE policy on foreign student visas in a letter to the Harvard community on Wednesday
MIT joined Harvard in filing the lawsuit to the US District Court in Boston, seeking a 14-day restraining order on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy.
The universities said that they relied on the Department of Homeland Security policy from March which would allow foreign students to remain in the US and for new students to arrive for the academic year beginning in the Fall.
‘If allowed to stand, ICE’s policy would bar hundreds of thousands of international students at American universities from the United States in the midst of their undergraduate or graduate studies,’ the schools wrote in the court papers.
‘ICE’s decision reflects a naked effort by the federal government to force universities to reopen all in-person classes notwithstanding their informed judgment that it is neither safe nor advisable to do so. The effect — perhaps even the goal—is to create chaos for schools and international students alike.’
The Boston Globe reports that the lawsuit notes that some students would not be able to continue their online education with Harvard and MIT if they return to their home countries.
It cited students from countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia where civil unrest makes internet access unlikely.
The suit added that some students would face ‘conditions of social unrest, economic instability, or other threats to their continued safety’.
‘Others might be drafted in their home countries, might face threats or abuse based on their sexual orientation, or might not be able to access mental health treatments,’ the universities argued.
Nearly 400,000 foreigners received student visas in the 12-month period that ended September 30, down more than 40 percent from four years earlier. School administrations partly blame visa processing delay.
Colleges across the US were already expecting sharp decreases in international enrollment this fall, but losing all international students could be disastrous for some.
Many depend on tuition revenue from international students, who typically pay higher tuition rates.
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