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Harvard, MIT sue Trump admin over new directive regarding student visas

  • Published at 11:32 am July 9th, 2020
U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a meeting of the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board in the East Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 26, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
File photo: U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a meeting of the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board in the East Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 26, 2020 Reuters

There are about 5,000 international students studying at Harvard, and 4,000 at MIT

The Trump administration was sued by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on Wednesday over an order that would require international students to take classes in person this fall, despite rising coronavirus caseloads that are complicating efforts by colleges and universities to offer in-person learning.

The lawsuit represented a swift response to an unexpected order issued this week by the federal government, as universities rush to protect the status of thousands of international students, reports The Washington Post.

It also marks a new battle line in the war between President Trump and education leaders over how to safely reopen schools in the midst of his re-election bid.

“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,” Harvard University President Lawrence S Bacow, told the Harvard community on Wednesday.

Northeastern University in Massachusetts also joined the suit, with its President Joseph E Aoun, saying the new guidance “creates chaos for international students and has the effect of weakening American higher education — one of our nation’s signature strengths.”

On Monday, the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Program announced that visas would not be issued to students enrolled in schools that are fully online this fall, the report said.

Under the rule, those students would be barred from entering the country. And to keep their visas, students already in the United States would need to leave the country or transfer to a school with in-person instruction.

However, the rule has not been published yet, but the guidance issued on Monday stunned university officials and created panic among students. 

Though international students were previously required to take classes in person, the government had offered schools and students flexibility this spring, after the pandemic shut down most campuses. And it had said that the new guidance would remain in effect for the duration of the emergency, the Post report continued.

Restraining order seeks to stop the government from enforcing the policy

There are about 5,000 international students at Harvard , and 4,000 at MIT. 

The universities, in their lawsuit, argued that the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s decision was designed to force universities to conduct in-person classes, part of an apparent political strategy from the Trump administration to pressure schools, from kindergarten to graduate school, to fully reopen this fall, even as virus cases soar, the report added.

The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court in Massachusetts, sought a temporary restraining order that would quickly stop the government from enforcing the policy. 

The schools argued that the rule violates the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs rulemaking by federal agencies, the report further continued.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Carissa Cutrell, a spokeswoman for ICE, said the agency “is unable to provide further comment due to pending litigation.”

‘Will encourage schools to reopen’

The lawsuit also cited remarks from the acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli on Tuesday, in which he said the directive “will encourage schools to reopen.”

The decision also reflects the administration’s continued efforts to limit and reduce the presence of international students in the country, the lawsuit argued.

Cuccinelli indicated that the Trump administration contends the new policy will provide more flexibility for colleges and universities and that international students could remain in the United States as long as they receive at least some face-to-face instruction.

“Anything short of 100% online classes,” he told CNN in an interview. 

Cuccinelli denied that the administration was seeking to “force” universities to offer in-person teaching. But he acknowledged that the administration wants to spur movement in that direction. 

“This is now setting the rules for one semester, which we will finalize later this month that will, again, encourage schools to reopen,” he told CNN.

ICE ruling frightens students

The report also said the ICE ruling frightened international students, who worried they risked deportation if their schools were not providing classes in person.

“That’s horrifying — I could not sleep,” said Mita Rawal, who is studying pharmacology at the University of Georgia. “It is not just me, it is my son, he goes to school here. If I had to pack up my bags and go to Nepal,” she said, and then broke off.

And then news broke from ICE. “I had not anticipated in my wildest dreams that I would be in this situation,” she said.

Outraged faculty members are mobilizing to defend the international students while some are brainstorming ways to work around the administration’s policy, creating makeshift classes for international students.

Dana R Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, said she woke up on Wednesday to 25 emails from terrified students. 

International students must take classes in person to stay in the country legally this fall, ICE announces

Trump administration’s policy prompted an array of higher education leaders to defend the ideals of international education and student exchange. 

Millions of students have come to the United States in the past century, they said, an extraordinary pipeline of talent that has promoted democracy around the world and helped build the US economy.

MIT President, L Rafael Reif on Wednesday said: “Our international students now have many questions — about their visas, their health, their families and their ability to continue working toward an MIT degree. Unspoken, but unmistakable, is one more question: Am I welcome?"

“At MIT, the answer, unequivocally, is yes.” He wrote about his own memories of the anxiety of arriving in the United States to study, “excited to advance my education, but separated from my family by thousands of miles. I also know that welcoming the world’s brightest, most talented and motivated students is an essential American strength.”

For the past several years, according to the Institute of International Education, the United States has hosted a little more than 1 million international students.

“The present efforts by American leadership to eliminate this truly successful, strategic asset of American economic and cultural leadership is a deeply misguided mistake,” Michael M Crow, president of Arizona State University, which has more than 10,000 international students, wrote in an email.

Matyás Kohout arrived in the United States from the Czech Republic wearing Converse sneakers covered in American flags. Coming from a formerly Communist country, where his parents had been unable to go to college, read Western literature or travel outside the country, the United States was a dream for him, the Post report said.

He hoped that the lawsuit will be successful. But he said his thinking has changed about the United States. “I find a lot of obstacles,” he said, and over time, those began to make him wonder. 

He loves the school and wants to complete his law degree. But he also wonders if his future is in Europe.

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