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Trump administration rescinds policy on international students

The Trump administration rescinded a policy on July 14 that would require international students to leave the country if classes remain entirely online this fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The repeal comes after a surprise policy announcement by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency on July 6 that was met with public backlash, resulting in a lawsuit led by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Under the policy, students on F-1 and M-1 visas that are anticipating a fully online transition for the fall semester were expected to “depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction.” Those who failed to meet these rules were threatened to be declared as an unlawful presence and “face immigration consequences” including deportation. The new policy also prohibited students attending schools offering a hybrid learning system, like Cal Poly Pomona, from taking all their courses online.

CPP’s International Students and Scholars office is located inside Building 1. (Courtesy of Tom Zasadzinski)

As a response to the surprise policy issued by ICE, Harvard University and MIT filed a lawsuit on July 8, seeking an injunction to block the new policy that threatens to strip visas from international students. The suit argues that ICE is violating the Administrative Procedure Act, which is the law that governs how federal agencies develop and enforce regulations, by not reasonably justifying its decision and not allowing the public to comment on the proposed policy before taking effect.

In a press release published on July 10, MIT explained that international students are required to attend mostly in-person classes to remain in the United States under normal circumstances. However, in March when officials declared a national emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ICE acknowledged the difficulties of on-campus instruction and made a formal exemption to this policy.

At the time, the agency said the action would be temporary but remain in effect “for the duration of the emergency.” The new ruling contradicted the previous exemption despite the fact that the national emergency continues, the lawsuit pointed out.

As of July 13, more than 200 universities have filed amicus briefs to support the legal actions taken by Harvard and MIT. Other schools, like John Hopkins University and the University of California system, have also joined the effort by filing lawsuits of their own.

California also became the first state to sue the Trump administration over the new guidelines, State Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced during a June 9 virtual news conference.

“Shame on the Trump Administration for risking not only the education opportunities for students who earned the chance to go to college, but now their health and well-being as well,” Becerra said.

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley and California State University Chancellor Timothy White joined the state lawsuit to challenge the administration over its unlawful policy that would force international students to take in-person classes to remain in the country.

“It is a callous and inflexible policy that unfairly disrupts our more than 10,300 international students’ progress to a degree, unnecessarily placing them in an extremely difficult position,” White said in a statement.

Following California’s lead, 17 other states and the District of Columbia joined Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in suing the Trump administration on July 13. The lawsuit argues that ICE’s reversal on its earlier decision is “senseless and cruel” to university students and, again, reveals its violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

The legal complaint also mentions that with high risks associated with the pandemic, “a blanket approach to holding in-person classes, no matter the current, local public health risks, endangers not only students, faculty and staff, but also their household members and our communities more broadly.”

The case led by Harvard and MIT was scheduled to have its hearing on July 14 in a federal district court in Boston. The lawsuit, noting that President Trump has not yet rescinded his national emergency declaration and COVID-19 cases are continuing to spike across multiple regions in the country, urged for ICE’s recent foreign student policy to get suspended. In response, federal officials agreed to allow students to keep their visas while studying online this fall.

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