As many as 17 US states and the District of Columbia have filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration’s new visa policy for international students, calling it a “cruel, abrupt, and unlawful action to expel them amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
In its July 6 order, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) declared that the nonimmigrant students with F-1 and M-1 visas attending schools operating entirely online or taking only online courses will not be permitted to remain in the United States.
The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court in Massachusetts against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the ICE, seeks an injunction to stop the entire rule from going into effect. It challenges what the 18 attorneys general call the federal government’s “cruel, abrupt, and unlawful action to expel international students amidst the pandemic that has wrought death and disruption across the United States”.
The modifications also limit many students at normally operating schools from taking more than one class or three credit hours online in order to remain in the country. In the 2018-2019 academic year, there were over 10 lakh international students in the US.
According to a recent report of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), there were 1,94,556 Indian students enrolled in various academic institutions in the US in January. The states that have filed the joint lawsuit are Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who led a coalition of 18 attorneys general in filing the lawsuit, in a statement alleged that the Trump administration did not 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 is home to thousands of international students who make invaluable contributions to our educational institutions, communities and economy. We are taking this action to make sure they can continue to live and learn in this country,” she said.
The lawsuit has been filed days after Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit against ICE’s latest rule that bars international students from staying in the US unless they attend at least one in-person course.
It challenges an abrupt policy change by the ICE to reverse the guidance issued on March 13 that recognised the COVID-19 public health emergency, provided flexibility for schools and allowed international students with F-1 and M-1 visas to take classes online for the duration of the emergency.
The lawsuit also alleges that the new rule imposes a significant economic harm by precluding thousands of international students from coming to and residing in the US and finding employment in fields such as science, technology, biotechnology, healthcare, business and finance, and education, and contributing to the overall economy.
Massachusetts hosts tens of thousands of international students each year — there are currently 77,000 with active student visas — and they are estimated to bring more than USD 3.2 billion to the economy each year. The state is also home to 92 private colleges and universities and operates 29 public institutions of higher education — 15 community colleges, nine state universities and five separate campuses of the University of Massachusetts system.
The lawsuit also includes 40 declarations from a variety of institutions affected by the new rule, including the Northeastern University, the Tufts University, the University of Massachusetts, the Boston University, the Massachusetts Community Colleges, the Massachusetts State Universities, the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts among others.
In California, seven international graduate students — six Chinese nationals and a German — have filed a federal lawsuit in the Central District of California. “The ICE policy requiring foreign students to attend in-person classes, even where their universities have determined that to do so will cost lives and endanger the campus community, in keeping with the judgement of public health experts, treats them as pawns for the president’s politically motivated decision.
“It is the latest in a series of irrational actions that is deepening the pandemic crisis in our nation and it comes as no surprise that the lives being threatened in the first instance are those of immigrants, lawfully studying here to contribute productively here and abroad,” said Mark Rosenbaum, directing attorney of the Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law project.