Harvard, MIT sue against Trump administration
Staff Reporter: Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the Trump administration Wednesday over an order that would require international students to take classes in person this fall, despite rising coronavirus caseloads that are complicating efforts by colleges and universities to offer in-person learning.
The lawsuit represented a swift response to an unexpected order issued this week by the federal government, as universities rush to protect the status of thousands of international students. It also represents a new battle line in the war between Trump and education leaders over how to safely reopen schools in the midst of his reelection bid.
“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’s president, Lawrence Bacow, told the Harvard community Wednesday.
On Monday, the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Program announced that visas would not be issued to students enrolled in schools that are fully online this fall. Under the rule, those students would be barred from entering the country, and those already in the United States must either leave the country or transfer to a school with in-person instruction to keep their visas.
The news stunned university officials. Though international students were previously required to take classes in person, the government offered schools and students flexibility this spring, in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic that shut down most campuses. In March, on the same day President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program issued temporary guidance that it said would remain in effect for the duration of the emergency.
So as university officials worked to finalize fall plans, many assumed that immigration authorities would extend that flexibility into the new academic year. Because the pandemic surges in many states, most colleges are at least prepared to switch to fully virtual instruction if needed. Others, including Harvard and the sprawling California State University System, have already announced plans to offer little to no in-person instruction.
In their lawsuit, the universities argue that ICE’s decision was designed to force universities to conduct in-person classes, part of an apparent political strategy from the Trump administration to pressure schools, from kindergarten to graduate school, to fully reopen this fall, even as virus cases soar.
The lawsuit cites remarks from acting deputy secretary of homeland security Ken Cuccinelli on Tuesday, in which he said the directive “will . . . encourage schools to reopen.”
The decision also reflects the administration’s continued efforts to limit and reduce the presence of international students in the country, the lawsuit argues.
The Trump administration contends the new policy will provide more flexibility for colleges and universities. Cuccinelli indicated Tuesday that international students could remain in the United States as long as they receive at least some face-to-face instruction.
“Anything short of 100 percent online classes,” he told CNN in an interview. Cuccinelli denied that the administration was seeking to “force” universities to reopen campuses for in-person teaching. But he acknowledged that the administration wants to spur movement in that direction. “This is now setting the rules for one semester, which we’ll finalize later this month that will, again, encourage schools to reopen,” he told CNN.
The ICE ruling frightened international students, who worried they risked deportation if their schools were not providing classes in person.
“That’s horrifying – I couldn’t sleep,” said Mita Rawal, studying pharmacology at the University of Georgia. “It’s not just me, it’s my son, he goes to school here. If I had to pack up my bags and go to Nepal,” she said, and then broke off.
She had already been through a tumultuous spring and summer, with a sudden need for a computer for her own studies and a secondhand laptop for her 5-year-old son’s schooling, paid for with the help of an emergency grant from the Institute of International Education. Her dissertation was put on hold, and she was unable to travel home for the summer because of travel restrictions and risks.
And then news broke from ICE. She kept checking her phone and email for updates. “I had not anticipated in my wildest dreams that I would be in this situation,” she said.
“The order came down without notice – its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness,” Harvard’s Bacow told the campus. “It appears that it was designed purposefully 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. This comes at a time when the United States has been setting daily records for the number of new infections, with more than 300,000 new cases reported since July 1.”
Harvard and MIT plan to offer most of their instruction online this fall. Harvard has about 5,000 international students, and MIT has nearly 4,000.
In the lawsuit, they argue that “ICE’s decision reflects an effort by the federal government to force universities to reopen in-person classes, which would require housing students in densely packed residential halls, notwithstanding the universities’ judgment that it is neither safe nor educationally advisable to do so.
An international student at Columbia University, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concern that speaking out might jeopardize his visa status, said, “The administration is using international students as a bait to secure campuses being hybrid or in person in the fall. It might work.”
But if the policy remains in place, he said, international students forced to return to their home countries may not know if they can come back, because of border restrictions and other complications caused by the pandemic.
The lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, filed in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, seeks a temporary restraining order that would quickly stop the government from enforcing the policy. The schools argue that the rule violates the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires the court to set aside agency action that is arbitrary, capricious or otherwise not in accordance with law.
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Carissa Cutrell, a spokeswoman for ICE, said the agency “is unable to provide further comment due to pending litigation.”
MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, told campus Wednesday: “Our international students now have many questions – about their visas, their health, their families and their ability to continue working toward an MIT degree. Unspoken, but unmistakable, is one more question: Am I welcome?
“At MIT, the answer, unequivocally, is yes.” He wrote about his own memories of the anxiety of arriving in the United States to study, “excited to advance my education, but separated from my family by thousands of miles. I also know that welcoming the world’s brightest, most talented and motivated students is an essential American strength.”
The administration’s policy prompted an array of higher education leaders to defend the ideals of international education and student exchange. Millions of students have come to the United States in the past century, they said, an extraordinary pipeline of talent that has promoted democracy around the world and helped build the U.S. economy.
“The present efforts by American leadership to eliminate this truly successful, strategic asset of American economic and cultural leadership is a deeply misguided mistake,” Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, which has more than 10,000 international students, wrote in an email.
Crow, who is also vice chair of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, noted that higher education is a leading U.S. export. “There is no actual indicator, no measurement of economic change that says that international students and college graduate immigrants weaken in any way the American economy or eliminate or reduce opportunity for Americans,” Crow said. “None.”
Outraged faculty are mobilizing, too, to defend international students. Some are brainstorming ways to work around the administration’s policy, creating makeshift classes for international students.
Sarah Parkinson, an assistant professor of political science and international studies at Johns Hopkins University, works routinely with international students. She said there is talk among professors about holding improvised face-to-face sessions with anyone who might need them to ensure they don’t get caught in a crackdown. Holding a class session in a park with a few students, sitting six feet apart, could be an option.
“It’s not even a question. Of course you’d do it,” Parkinson said. “We care about our students. We invest in our students. Our students invest in us as well.”
Parkinson said she had just spoken with an anxious student who is now overseas and worried about how to get back to the United States.
Faculty are irate and incredulous, Parkinson said, that the government has provoked such desperation among a core constituency of university communities.
“To have to sit here and argue that our international students are a fundamental part of and a great asset to our educational system – this is not something that’s debatable,” Parkinson said. “But this is a policy that forces us to debate it.”