The federal government, facing lawsuits filed by USC, Harvard and other colleges and universities throughout the country, Tuesday dropped a new visa policy requiring that international students take at least one in-person class or face deportation to their home countries during the coronavirus pandemic.
The decision was announced during a Boston federal court hearing on a lawsuit brought by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology challenging the ICE restriction. Multiple universities in Southern California and elsewhere also challenged the rule.
The Harvard/MIT suit, filed July 6, asked the court to prevent the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from enforcing the new guidance and to declare it unlawful.
On Monday, a coalition of 20 schools, including USC, sued the government in a bid to overturn the policy that would deprive foreign students of their United States visas if their fall classes are held solely online.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Oregon, alleged that the new rules suddenly put thousands of international students “in dire straits.”
“Those who are unable to enroll in in-person courses for the Fall face the threat of removal. They may be sent back to a country with little or no internet access, they may face new health or safety risks in that country, or they may not even have a home to go back to,” the suit said. “Once expelled, they may never be able to reapply for or reenter the F-1 (student visa) program, thus permanently ending their post-secondary education.”
Along with USC, plaintiffs include Pitzer, Scripps and Pomona colleges, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Chapman University in Orange, Claremont McKenna College and the University of San Diego.
According to the 36-page complaint, the DHS and ICE gave no prior notice when it announced the new rules and gave no indication that the government “considered how its action would impact the health of students, faculty, staff or surrounding communities.”
ICE said in a statement last week that the U.S. Department of State would not issue visas “to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States.”
In seeking a court order halting the policy, the plaintiffs in the Oregon suit alleged that the ICE order was “contrary to law and arbitrary and capricious.”
USC President Carol Folt, in a letter to the USC community, wrote that the U.S. “cannot afford to lose the vital diversity of thought and experience international students bring to our universities. At USC, we are preparing the next generation of leaders to enter an increasingly diverse society at a time when inclusion and understanding have never been more important. Our international students are core to our mission.”
On Friday, attorneys for seven international university students studying in Orange and Los Angeles counties sued the Trump administration, alleging that new rules on foreign student visas makes them “pawns in a political drama.” The federal civil complaint, filed in Santa Ana, seeks a court order preventing the government from enforcing the policy.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, universities across the nation began to shift to largely online classes in March to discourage bringing people together in a confined space.
At that time, international students were protected by guidance issued by the student visitor program, which kept non-immigrant student visas in compliance regardless of how their colleges managed the shift from in-person classes.
However, as California registers some of its highest new daily cases totals since the pandemic began, DHS rolled back its exemptions from the spring, requiring students whose schools choose to conduct the fall 2020 term entirely online to leave the United States.
Also last week, the state of California sued the Trump administration over the new policy, and USC announced it would offer free in-person classes to help international students avoid being forced out of the country.
The lawsuit brought by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, along with community and state college chancellors, contends the policy threatens to exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 by requiring international students to take classes in person, “putting themselves, teachers, other students and the community at large at risk of getting and spreading the coronavirus — or be subject to deportation.”
USC announced Thursday that international students who need to take an in-person class this fall to maintain their visa status and avoid being deported under the new policy will be able to enroll in the course at no cost.
USC previously announced plans to join an amicus brief supporting the Harvard/MIT lawsuit, and more than a dozen technology companies, including, Google, Facebook and Twitter also announced their support of the suit.