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17 States Sue Trump Over Deportation Threats to International Students

The states are joined by a separate lawsuit seeking to block the action, filed last week by Harvard and MIT.

An empty Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on April 27, 2020.

More than a dozen states joined together on Monday to file a lawsuit against the Trump administration, following an announcement last week from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stating that international students could be deported if universities allowed them to utilize online-only options for their education.

Students could be impacted if the university itself goes online-only, or if they individually choose to create a schedule that is solely online. Such decisions are being considered in order to curb or prevent the spread of coronavirus on campus.

ICE’s moves last week, however, could force international students to make a difficult choice: return to the classrooms and risk exposure to the disease, or go online-only and be forced to leave the country.

Universities across the country may be stuck with a catch-22: reopen classrooms to ensure international students can remain in the U.S. while risking greater exposure to the disease, or keep utilizing distance learning in order to protect the health of students and faculty with the possibility some students could be deported as a result.

These decisions could have enormous impacts, as the U.S. grants more than one million student visas to international students every year. International students also tend to pay higher tuition fees, and public universities, particularly in the last few decades, have been upping the proportion of both international and out-of-state admissions as a way to cover for the revenue gaps left by the defunding of education by the federal government. As such, the ICE policy could be seen as a way of putting economic pressure on public universities to physically reopen.

In response to ICE’s announcement, 17 states plus the District of Columbia announced on Monday that they would be suing the Trump administration over the matter. The argument, according to those states’ attorneys general, is that the decision to revoke the visas of international students was made in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, which deals with decision-making processes within federal agencies.

The litigants’ case may stand on some pretty solid foundation, considering that the same act was cited in a Supreme Court decision on a separate immigration last month. In a 5-4 decision from the Court, justices found the Trump administration had violated the Administrative Procedure Act when they had attempted to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who is spearheading the coalition of states suing the administration, chastised the White House for providing little-to-no justification for why international students had to be deported if their classes went online.

“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 in a statement.

The states’ lawsuit isn’t the only legal action being taken against the Trump administration over its new rules on international students. Last week Wednesday, Harvard and MIT asked for court intervention to block the order, too, saying it put an undue burden on its students to make difficult decisions pitting their health against their desires to continue studying in the U.S. Johns Hopkins University also filed a lawsuit on Friday over the matter.

“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 President Lawrence Bacow said.

The decision from ICE, Bacow added, appeared to be political in his opinion, an attempt by the Trump administration to “place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors and others,” he added.

The Trump administration has been adamant about schools and universities reopening their doors this fall, in spite of the steady rise of coronavirus cases across the country.

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