California Sues Trump Administration Over Roll-Back of COVID-19 Exemptions for Student Visas

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California officials on Thursday announced plans to file a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s decision to reintroduce limits to online courses for international students in the fall semester that could force tens of thousands of them to leave the United States if universities decide to hold their classes entirely online.

The lawsuit by the state’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra and community and state college chancellors says the changes to the temporary exemptions during the COVID-19 pandemic could put the health of international students at risk by forcing them to attend lessons in person.

The change would put “themselves, teachers, other students, and the community at large at risk of getting and spreading the coronavirus—or be subject to deportation,” the lawsuit contends.

At the start of the pandemic, the Trump administration introduced temporary changes to permit international students to take online courses and still fulfil their visa obligations. With the height of the health crisis past, the Department of Homeland Security said it would now not be issuing visas to students enrolled in learning that is fully online from the fall semester.

California’s lawsuit in federal court comes after Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the Trump administration this week over the updated policy, arguing the new rules did not appear to take the health of students and faculty into consideration and would cause chaos at universities and colleges around the country.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on July 6 released guidelines that said international students will be required to leave the country or transfer to another college if their schools offer classes entirely online in the fall of 2020.

The following day, the U.S. State Department said that international students are welcome on campuses in the United States this fall semester provided that colleges don’t hold all classes online.

In a press release published July 7, a State Department spokesperson said Homeland Security plans to make “temporary modifications” to F-1 and M-1 nonimmigrant visa requirements for the fall 2020 semester. The visas are for academic and vocational students.

“This will allow a mixture of both in-person and some online coursework to meet the requirements for nonimmigrant student status,” the release states.

This “temporary accommodation,” the spokesperson said, will provide greater flexibility for nonimmigrant students to continue their education in the United States, while allowing for “proper social distancing” on open and operating campuses across the country.

“The United States has long been the destination of choice for international students, and we are pleased that many international students who had planned to study this fall in the United States may still have the opportunity to do so.”

“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,” attorney general Becerra said in a statement. “Today, President Trump appears set to do just that—amidst a global pandemic of historic proportions. Not on our watch.”

There are more than a million foreign students at U.S. colleges and universities, and many schools depend on revenue from foreign students, who often pay full tuition. The State Department issued 388,839 F visas and 9,518 M visas in fiscal 2019, according to the agency’s data.

According to NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, during the 2018–2019 academic year, foreign students in the United States contributed nearly $41 billion to the national economy.

ICE said institutions moving entirely to online learning must submit plans to the agency by July 15. Schools that will use only in-person learning, shortened or delayed classes, or a blend of in-person and online learning must submit plans by Aug. 1.

In an FAQ document (pdf), ICE explained that the change in visa exemptions would “balances students’ ability to continue their studies [from abroad] while minimizing the risk of spread of COVID-19 in our communities by ensuring that individuals who do not need to be present in the United States are not physically here.”

Many U.S. universities, including the University of California and the California State University system are planning to shift entirely to online classes this fall semester due to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic.

The University of California system announced Wednesday that it planned to sue over the new policy.

“As part of our effort to respond to COVID-19 and to protect the health of all our students, UC has increased online instruction and decreased in-person classes,” UC Board of Regents Chair John A. Pérez said in a statement Wednesday. “Even last-ditch efforts can cause real harm, so it is imperative for UC to file this lawsuit in order to protect our students.”

“To UC’s international students, I say: ‘We support you and regret the additional chaos ICE’s action has caused,’” he added. “To the courts, I say, ‘We are the University of California. UC knows science, UC knows law, and we approach both in good faith. Our opponents have shown you time and again that they do not.’”

California had nearly 162,000 international students in 2019, according to a report by the U.S. State Department and the Institute of International Education.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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