SWITZERLAND, JULY 08- Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have sued the Trump administration over its order to strip international college students of their US visas and deport them if their courses go entirely online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The universities, in a lawsuit filed on Wednesday at the US District Court in Boston, requested a temporary restraining order to pause the July 6 government order. The order was “unlawful”, said the universities, asking the court to stop the US Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement from the enforcing federal guidelines that will force international students to leave America.
A temporary restraining order will put the Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy on hold for 14 days. In court papers, the universities said they relied on the Department of Homeland Security’s policy from March that allowed foreign students in the US to remain and to allow new students to arrive this fall.
Today’s Echo had reported that thousands of Nigerian students face possible deportation from the United States after the Trump administration announced that it was reviewing visa policies for non-immigrant foreign students due to the changes occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The latest order from the US government is likely to affect several Nigerian students who are living in the US on student visas. In March 2019, Rachel Canty, Deputy Director, Student and Exchange Visitor Programme, U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Nigeria was ranked as the country with the highest of students from Africa studying in the U.S.
According to a March 2019 report, over 16,000 Nigerians are studying in the United States, most of them on student visas. Also, a report citing data from the US Department of Commerce, said Nigerian students contributed 514 million dollars to the U.S economy in 2018.
However, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, US universities have resorted to conducting online classes as opposed to in-person classes. At Harvard, for example, all course instruction will be delivered online, including for students living on campus. For international students, that opens the door to them having to leave the US.
“Nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States,” the Student and Exchange Visitor Programme (SEVP) said on Monday.
The SEVP announced this as part of its changes to the temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students taking online classes due to the pandemic for the fall 2020 semester. It predicted deportation as the most likely outcome for students on F-1 and M-1 nonimmigrant visas.
“Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings,” the statement read.
The exchange programme team said persons studying English language training programmes and those undertaking vocational degrees, are not permitted to take any classes online.
Universities with a hybrid system of in-person and online classes will have to show that foreign students are taking as many in-person classes as possible, to maintain their status.
This decision sparked a barrage of reactions from critics.
“The cruelty of this White House knows no bounds. Foreign students are being threatened with a choice: risk your life going to class-in person or get deported,” Senator Bernie Sanders complained.
“There’s so much uncertainty. It’s very frustrating,” said Valeria Mendiola, 26, a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “If I have to go back to Mexico, I am able to go back, but many international students just can’t.”
Vice president of the American Council on Education, Brad Farnsworth, expressed his surprise over the decision saying “We think this is going to create more confusion and more uncertainty. What we were hoping to see was more appreciation for all the different possible nuances that campuses will be exploring.”
Harvard University President Larry Bacow said in a statement Monday evening that “we are deeply concerned that the guidance issued today by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement imposes a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem giving international students, particularly those in online programs, few options beyond leaving the country or transferring schools.”
According to the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, DC, about 1.2 million students who fall under the affected visas were enrolled and registered at more than 8,700 schools nationwide as of March 2018.
Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, who works as the policy counsel at the Washington-based think tank American Immigration Council, the new rule is “almost certainly going to be challenged in court.”
The Trump administration has several changes to the US immigration system, citing the coronavirus pandemic, which has prohibited swaths of immigrants from coming to the country.
Just last month, the White House issued an immigration proclamation dramatically curtailing legal immigration to the US sending hundreds of people and businesses into a scramble to understand whether their future plans are derailed.
In the proclamation, the administration argued that the “extraordinary circumstances” posed by coronavirus called for the suspension of employment-based visas.
However, Immigrant advocates, industries and experts say the administration is taking advantage of the pandemic to make sweeping immigration changes and advance its agenda to slash legal immigration.
With more than 130,000 deaths linked to the novel coronavirus, the United States is the hardest-hit country in the global pandemic.