State Attorneys General File Lawsuit Over Student Visa Policy

A man wearing a face mask in concern for the coronavirus, talks on his phone, Friday, June 26, 2020, on the steps of Harvard University's Widener Library, in Cambridge, Mass.

A man wearing a face mask in concern for the coronavirus, talks on his phone, Friday, June 26, 2020, on the steps of Harvard University's Widener Library, in Cambridge, Mass. AP Photo/Elise Amendola

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Eighteen attorneys general are challenging a new Trump administration directive that would force international students to leave the U.S. if they are not taking in-person classes in the fall.

A coalition of attorneys general filed a lawsuit Monday challenging a Trump administration directive that would bar international students from remaining in the United States if they take all of their classes at American universities online this fall.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed the lawsuit on behalf of 17 states and Washington, D.C., saying schools face an “an agonizing dilemma” under the policy and have very little time to certify which international students would qualify to stay in the United States.

Universities were taken by surprise last week when the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued guidance indicating that the State Department would not issue visas to students enrolled in fully online classes for the fall semester. For those currently outside the U.S., ICE would not allow the students to enter the country. The guidance urges students to either leave the country or to transfer to a school with in-person instruction that would qualify for a student visa.  

More than 373,000 international students attended 1,124 colleges in the 18 jurisdictions represented in the lawsuit in 2019, the complaint states. Altogether, they contributed an estimated $14 billion to the U.S. economy that year.

“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,” Healey said.

The ICE directive gives schools until July 15 to notify the federal government whether they intend to offer only remote courses in the fall semester and until August 6 to certify whether individual students are taking in-person classes that meet the threshold for a visa.

Universities across the country closed and sent students home this spring during the coronavirus outbreak, later returning with online instruction. Some schools have announced they will only have online classes in the fall, while others are still trying to determine whether they will welcome students back to campus in some fashion.  

Universities could stand to lose tens of millions of dollars if their international students disenroll, the complaint states. Some college officials have said they could create one-credit classes that will meet in person to meet the new requirements. 

To keep international students enrolled, universities “must scramble to offer sufficient in-person classes in myriad subjects for hundreds of thousands of international students, mere weeks before the semester starts, and without regard for the public health impact of doing so,” the complaint states. “The alternative is to lose significant numbers of international students from their campuses, who will be forced to leave the country to participate remotely insofar as they are able, transfer to another school offering sufficient in-person classes, or disenroll from school altogether.”

ICE did not return a request for comment Monday about the lawsuit. Last week, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended the policy, comparing it to the stance the federal government has previously taken to online learning.  

“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?”  she said.

More than 200 universities have backed a separate legal challenge filed previously by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The universities are suing ICE. arguing that the policy jeopardizes students' safety and forces schools to reconsider fall plans they have spent months preparing. A hearing in that case is scheduled for Tuesday. 

Dissatisfied students have also filed their own lawsuits against universities that transitioned to online learning, alleging that they did not get what they paid for and should have their tuition fees refunded.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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