A group of states asked a federal court on Monday to block a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement rule that bars foreign students from taking online-only coursework in the fall semester, arguing that the Trump administration failed to consider the challenges faced by schools during a pandemic that has yet to abate.
Led by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, 18 attorneys generals filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Boston against the ICE directive, which provoked widespread criticism from students, universities and lawmakers when it was issued earlier this month. The suit is the latest of several court challenges mounted by states and universities like Harvard and MIT.
Regulations that govern the Student and Exchange Visitor Program generally bar foreigners on F-1 and M-1 visas — which are for academic and vocational students, respectively — from participating in online-only school semesters. But in March, ICE issued an exemption to these requirements during the spring and summer semesters as a result of the worsening coronavirus public health crisis.
On July 6, ICE announced that the exemption would not be in place during the fall semester, saying in a message to students and schools that F-1 and M-1 visa holders would not be allowed to enter or remain in the U.S. if they intended to take only online classes in the fall.
ICE said foreign students already in the U.S. who are planning to attend colleges or universities that will only offer online classes in the fall would need to transfer to other schools providing in-person instruction, leave the country or face potential deportation. If they depart the U.S., the students would be able to continue the remote instruction in their home countries. Students could also participate in hybrid semesters as long as their schools certify that not all of their classes are online.
The lawsuit on Monday argued that the guidance violated the Administrative Procedure Act because the Trump administration “failed to offer a reasoned explanation for its action.” ICE, the suit alleged, also did not give students and colleges sufficient time to adapt to the changes and failed to consider the policy’s impact on measures, and its “harm and extreme burdens” on colleges and universities.
Citing statements by President Trump and Acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli, the lawsuit also said the ICE guidance was part of a campaign by the administration to force schools to reopen in the fall, despite public health concerns.
“Coercing schools into holding more in-person classes in the fall — regardless of the schools’ assessment of the health and safety risks of doing so — harms the Plaintiff States’ ability to regulate their institutions and protect the public,” the lawsuit read.
The federal judge overseeing Harvard University’s lawsuit against the ICE guidance scheduled a hearing for Tuesday in which he could issue a decision on whether to block the policy.
Citing ongoing litigation, ICE said it was “unable to comment” on Monday’s lawsuit.
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