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Schools, Businesses, Cities Push Back On Rule Blocking Some International Students

Pedestrians in Harvard Yard in 2019. Schools and businesses have gone to court to stop the Trump administration from barring online-only international students from entering or staying in the United States.
Pedestrians in Harvard Yard in 2019. Schools and businesses have gone to court to stop the Trump administration from barring online-only international students from entering or staying in the United States.

One week ago, the Trump administration announced it would ban international students from attending U.S. colleges in the fall if they only take online classes. Now hundreds of colleges and universities, dozens of cities, and some of the country's biggest tech companies are pushing back.

In several court filings Friday and Monday, the groups stand with the international students. They argue providing remote education is crucial given how contagious COVID-19 is — and they say they crafted policies for the fall by depending on earlier assurances from the federal government that international students would be able to attend class remotely "for the duration of the emergency" while still retaining their F-1 or M-1 visa status.

They're supporting an initial legal challenge by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the first to sue the administration over its new policy. Existing law had prohibited international students from taking all their courses online, but the administration temporarily lifted that rule in March.

In a response Monday, the government said that just because it offered leniency in March, it doesn't have to extend that policy through the fall. The request to do so "subverts the deference afforded administrative agencies in complex and interrelated fields like immigration enforcement," the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said.

According to the Institute of International Education, more than 1 million international students take courses in the U.S. — about 5% of the total student body.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement "blindsided the whole of higher education," more than 180 colleges and universities wrote in their amicus brief filed with U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, where Harvard's challenge is being heard. The schools range from small private colleges to large public universities, spread across the nation. "Though diverse in faith, academic mission, geography, and size, these institutions are deeply concerned with and impacted by ICE's July 6 directive," they wrote.

"ICE's abrupt policy change guts the enormous reliance interests of higher education institutions and their students — all of whom planned for the fall 2020 semester based on ICE's earlier confirmation that its March 2020 position would remain so long as the 'emergency' continued," the schools wrote.

They're arguing that, legally, ICE can't just change its mind after so many schools spent months crafting policies based on the government's guidance. To change course so completely without adequate justification is "arbitrary and capricious," the schools wrote, citing the legal standard used by courts.

They are asking the federal court to put a hold on the government's proposal until the courts can rule on its legality.

When the coronavirus began to spread, schools across the country moved their coursework online. And they immediately had to make hard decisions about the fall term. The California State University system — one of the largest higher education systems in the country, with 480,000 students — felt it would be "irresponsible" to postpone a decision on in-person classes until the summer. "Because of its size, the CSU system had to sacrifice flexibility for certainty," the filing said. So CSU decided in the spring that its 23 campuses would mostly offer classes remotely for the fall term.

The administration's plan could be catastrophic to some schools. At the Stevens Institute of Technology — a private research university in Hoboken, N.J. — international students make up one-third of its overall student body and 61% of graduate students. "With such a large volume of international students, inability to continue educating these students would be devastating," the schools wrote.

And international students make "immense contributions" to campuses nationwide, they said, fostering diversity and enhancing schools' intellectual and athletic competitiveness. Blocking these students from attending American schools would only send them elsewhere, giving an advantage to foreign nations, the schools said.

An amicus brief filed by America's top technology companies makes a similar point. International students are both customers and future employees of these companies, wrote Google, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Adobe and others in a filing Monday. If international students lose their visas and are forced to return home, American businesses and the economy at large will suffer, they said.

In addition to the tens of billions of dollars that international students contribute directly to the U.S. economy each year, they also help ensure that American companies "continue leading the world in innovation," they wrote.

And without international students, American schools will suffer, they said: "The loss of international students as a result of the July 6 Directive threatens the very existence of educational programs — for both American and international students — that are critical to training the employees U.S. businesses need and supporting the research that enables America to lead the world in innovation."

If international students are barred from studying in the U.S. until the coronavirus pandemic is over, the companies said, many will simply never return. Companies in turn won't be able to recruit those students. And the entire economy will suffer.

Dozens of municipalities filed their own brief in support of Harvard and MIT's challenge. International students "make significant economic contributions" to their communities, wrote the municipalities, which include Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle, New York and about two dozen other cities large and small.

"In New York City, international students contribute more than $3 billion in economic value annually," they wrote. "In Pittsburgh, one job is created for every two international students enrolled in the city's colleges and universities. And in Iowa City, the 2,500 resident international students at the University of Iowa contribute millions of dollars to the city's economy annually."

The federal government's "rash" decision could also have health consequences, they wrote: It's "likely to send students threatened with removal into the shadows, where public health efforts will not reach them, in the midst of a pandemic."

The court in Massachusetts is scheduled to hear arguments in the case on Tuesday.

Several other organizations have filed their own lawsuits challenging the Trump administration's new policy. Massachusetts filed a federal suit joined by attorneys general in 16 states and the District of Columbia; Johns Hopkins University filed suit Friday; and the University of California system has pledged its own lawsuit.

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