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Harvard, MIT sue US govt depts over new immigration rule for foreign students

A little over 46,000 F-visas (which include students’ family members) were issued to Indians in 2019, roughly 11% of the total 3.9 lakh such visas issued that year, records of the US State Department show.

Written by Karishma Mehrotra | New Delhi |
Updated: July 10, 2020 2:42:32 pm
us international students, us foreign students visa, harvard, mit, us immigration, us immigration guidelines, us immigration visa guidelines In this August 13, 2019 file photo, students walk near the Widener Library in Harvard Yard at Harvard University. Schools such as Harvard, Princeton, and Georgetown have already announced mostly remote-learning semesters. (Photo: AP)

A day after the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced international students could not be in the country for an online-only course load, MIT and Harvard filed a suit against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, in the US District Court in Boston, Massachusetts.

“By threatening to force many F-1 students to withdraw from Harvard and MIT, Defendants have put both schools to an impossible choice: lose numerous students who bring immense benefits to the school or take steps to retain those students through in-person classes, even when those steps contradict each school’s judgment about how best to protect the health of the students, faculty, staff, and the entire university community.”

Under US laws such as the Administrative Procedure Act, the plaintiffs claimed, the directive was “arbitrary and capricious” with “virtually no reasoned decision making” and asked the court to hold the agency action as unlawful. It also stated that ICE provided no notice, opportunity for public comment, and no explanation.

Also Read | Explained: How US visa move affects Indian students

The ICE directive, issued Monday US time, applies to the F-1 non-immigrant visas for academic work and M-1 non-immigrant visas for vocational coursework. It requires school officials to issue new visa forms by August 4, and to submit operational plans by July 15 if they are online-only, and August 1 if otherwise.

It also required students who were enrolled in a school that had a hybrid option to come to the country — meaning they could not take an online-only option if their school provided in-person options.

While Harvard is housing no more than 40 per cent of undergraduates and all college classes are online, MIT announced that it would have online instruction for those away from campus and a hybrid model for those on campus.

Others have also expressed intent to pursue legal action, including the Massachusetts Attorney General.

A letter from the Harvard President stated: “The order came down without notice—its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness … This comes at a time when the United States has been setting daily records for the number of new infections … For many of our international students, studying in the United States and studying at Harvard is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. These students are our students, and they enrich the learning environment for all … We owe it to them to stand up and to fight—and we will.”

The MIT President said in a letter: “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.”

The complaint stated: “By all appearances, 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, and to force such a reopening when neither the students nor the universities have sufficient time to react to or address the additional risks to the health and safety of their communities. The effect—and perhaps even the goal—is to create as much chaos for universities and international students as possible.”

It continued: “ICE’s action leaves hundreds of thousands of international students with no educational options within the United States. Just weeks from the start of the fall semester, these students are largely unable to transfer to universities providing on-campus instruction, notwithstanding ICE’s suggestion that they might do so to avoid removal from the country. Moreover, for many students, returning to their home countries to participate in online instruction is impossible, impracticable, prohibitively expensive, and/or dangerous.”

It gave the example of students from Syria, which is experiencing on ongoing civil war, and Ethiopia, where Internet access has been suspended for long periods.

“These students will therefore likely be forced to leave the country. The consequences of this sudden displacement are both financial and personal. In addition to incurring substantial expenses to make international travel arrangements in the midst of a pandemic that has significantly reduced the availability of air travel, as well as losing their homes—in many instances at great cost associated with broken leases—some students will be forced to upend their young children’s lives by returning to their home countries, while others’ families will be split apart in order to comply with the July 6 Directive.”

The complaint also noted that ICE’s previous exemptions to the regulations — which had allowed these students to complete their spring and summer semesters online — had stated it would be “in effect for the duration of the emergency” which, the complaint said, “continues to do this day”.

On Tuesday, US news outlets reported that US President Donald Trump had said: “I see where Harvard announced that they’re closing for the season or for the year. I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s an easy way out. And I think they ought to be ashamed of themselves, you want to know the truth. But I noticed that today, and probably others are doing that … That’s called the easy way out. I don’t know if people are helping them. I guess their endowment is plenty big; they don’t have a problem with that. But that’s not what we want to do.”

A little over 46,000 F-visas (which include students’ family members) were issued to Indians in 2019, roughly 11% of the total 3.9 lakh such visas issued that year, records of the US State Department show. Among the total 9,500 M-visas last year, 714, or 7.5%, went to Indians. Indians on F-visas and M-visas amounted to almost 5% of all Indians on non-immigrant visas in the US in 2019.

The move comes on the heels of the US blocking the entry of those on H-1B visas. Soon after this ICE order, the US President’s social media posts read: “The Democrats don’t want to open schools in the Fall for political reasons, not for health reasons!” and “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!”

There were around two lakh Indian students in the US in 2019, surpassed only by China, according to a report by the US-based Institute of International Education (IIE). International students, often not on financial loans, contribute around $45 billion, it said, citing the US Department of Commerce. This sum helps the American government subsidise much of the fees for its own students.

The ICE move has been opposed by high-level officials, with US Senator Elizabeth Warren calling it “senseless, cruel, and xenophobic” and former UN Ambassador Samatha Power describing it as “needlessly cruel.”

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