On Monday morning, 18 attorneys general filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security challenging a Trump administration rule that would effectively deport international students if their classes are moved online due to coronavirus. The rule, announced with no notice, has essentially politicized student visas in the same way that the Trump administration has politicized seeking asylum amidst a global pandemic.
The rule would authorize Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency within DHS that targets immigrants who do not have immigration documentation, to initiate removal proceedings against international students, if those students are in the U.S. on student visas but attending schools whose classes are now being held online due to the pandemic. The guidance, issued on July 6, comes as universities have spent months working on detailed plans to develop hybrid models of instruction, combining in-person and online resources, to protect students' health without compromising their education.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia backed the lawsuit, which was filed in a Boston district court. "This is just another example of the Trump administration using our educational system to make a political statement, at the expense of our students and schools," said Michigan's attorney general Dana Nessel, who signed onto the lawsuit. "I am proud to stand alongside my colleagues in calling for an end to this dangerous rule, which ultimately could endanger lives and further strain the financial health of our educational institutions and our states."
The lawsuit claims that the ICE rules endanger the safety and wellbeing of international students for a number of reasons, not the least of which is forcing students to move back to their home countries in the middle of a global pandemic. But it's the logistics of the Trump rule that the attorneys general have taken legal issue with: The rule demands that international students enroll in majority in-person classes. For those who attend universities that have pledged to take their curriculums fully online, they'll either have to find a different university that is teaching in-person or leave the country. Both are unworkable, "cruel" options, the lawsuit says.
"Massachusetts is home to thousands of international students who make invaluable contributions to our educational institutions, communities, and economy. We are taking this action today to make sure they can continue to live and learn in this country," said Massachusetts's attorney general Maura Healey.
Healey and Nessel are joined in the suit by the attorneys general of Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, all of whom are Democrats. Three of the states, however — Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — voted for President Trump in 2016. Altogether, the states represent a combined 1,124 colleges and universities that host 373,304 international students. The lawsuit also states that the students contribute billions of dollars to the states' economies.
The administration has already faced swift backlash for the rule, as dozens of universities across the country have vowed to protect their international students by adjusting course plans for next year. The state of California sued the Trump administration separately from Monday morning's lawsuit, arguing that the "policy isn’t just unlawful, it’s dangerous and morally reprehensible."
Despite the backlash, the White House has stood by the rule. "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?" said White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany. "Perhaps the better lawsuit would be coming from students who have to pay full tuition with no access to in-person classes to attend."