MASSACHUSETTS ATTORNEY GENERAL Maura Healey on Monday joined more than a dozen other state attorneys general in filing a lawsuit to stop a new federal rule that threatens to bar hundreds of thousands of international students from studying in the United States.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court against the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), challenges what Healey and fellow AGs called the government’s “cruel, abrupt, and unlawful action to expel international students amidst the pandemic that has wrought death and disruption across the United States.”
On July 8, ICE officials ordered international students to leave the country if their college or university is offering only online classes in the fall out of concern over the coronavirus pandemic. Their other option is to immediately transfer to a college that hosts in-person courses.
Healey and attorneys general from 16 states plus the District of Columbia are seeking an injunction to stop the rule from going into effect.
The Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement said they do not comment on pending lawsuits.
The action by ICE followed a Trump administration directive, announced on July 6, limiting foreign student visas, known as F-1 visas, to those taking in-person classes in the US.
Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed suit last week seeking a temporary restraining order against the directive taking effect for 14 days. The universities are also permanent injunctive relief blocking the policy on grounds that the Trump administration failed to offer any reasonable basis to justify the change in protocol.
A hearing on that suit is scheduled for Tuesday.
Most fall courses at Harvard and MIT are being held remotely this fall out of concern over the spread of COVID-19 on campus. Many other schools in Massachusetts are adopting similar policies.
The barring of international students from entering to the US for the fall semester has already begun. Bill Lee, a lawyer for Harvard, told US District Court Judge Allison Burroughs on Thursday that an unnamed Harvard student had been turned away Wednesday from an airport in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
A leading center of higher education, Massachusetts currently hosts 77,000 foreign students with active student visas, according to federal government data. Healey said those students bring more than $3.2 billion to the economy each year. “International students are more likely to pay full tuition and fees and help subsidize the education of others,” she said.
The attorneys general say in their complaint that the new rule and reversal of a previous guidance issued in March on international student visas fails to consider the health and safety of students and staff because it seeks to pressure universities to reopen with in-person classes in the fall. They also said there is a financial burden placed on schools and students to readjust their plans so abruptly.
“The Trump Administration didn’t even attempt to explain the basis for this senseless rule, which forces schools to choose between keeping their international students enrolled and protecting the health and safety of their campuses,” Healey said at a Monday afternoon press conference.
Healey suggested the administration’s decision was about politics and the upcoming November election. Describing how the pandemic continues to surge around the country, Healey said Trump wants to “force” colleges and universities to open their campuses to “win an election, by showing that everything is fine in this country. It’s business as usual.”
The Democratic attorney general, who has filed dozens of lawsuits against the Trump administration over the past three years, sounded confident about her latest effort. “Every time he does something dumb, illegal, unconstitutional, we’ll see him in court,” she told reporters.
At an earlier rally outside the State House, Harvard student Oya Gursoy said that the immigration agency’s ban will throw a wrench in her effort to graduate by the end of the year. “I’d have to simply quit three years of undergraduate work I’ve done here, leave my job, and source of income behind in the US, and the senior thesis I’ve been working on,” said Gursoy, who is from Turkey and majoring in social studies. “I’d have to return to the political chaos and uncertainty of back home.”
A Harvard doctoral student, who asked to remain anonymous, told the crowd that the prospect of having to suddenly uproot and leave her partner, adopted animals, and university program sent her to seek emergency mental health care last week. “I’ve barely slept,” said the student, describing nightmares of being “dragged away” from her personal and professional life by immigration enforcement. A psychiatrist placed her on anxiety medication.
“The threat of deportation is affecting my ability to focus on my work and will continue to do so until I have certainty that I can remain in the US and continue my doctoral program and my research,” she said.
The lawsuit also includes 40 declarations from various institutions and organizations impacted by the rule, including Northeastern University, Tufts University, University of Massachusetts, Boston University, associations representing Massachusetts community colleges and state universities, the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
Massachusetts elected officials have come out strongly against the new federal rule. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and other members of Congress wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security asking that the new rule be abandoned. At a press conference last Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker slammed the move by ICE as “premature.”
This story was updated at 6 pm on Monday to include information from Healey’s press conference and a State House rally by international students.