[July 14 update: In a victory for Vassar and colleges and universities across the United States, the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have completely rescinded their directive that international students would be required to take in-person classes or risk deportation. The rescission comes after a lawsuit from MIT and Harvard, which was joined by dozens of colleges and businesses. ICE may introduce a new directive in the future, but for now it reverts back to the status quo, which does not require international students to take classes in person.
More than 200 colleges and universities issued amicus briefs in support of Harvard and MIT. Several other lawsuits had been issued by states—namely Massachusetts, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin, as well as by individual universities. According to the state lawsuit, the directive would have removed over 370,000 students from the United States.]
Vassar College announced via social media that they will file an amicus brief in support of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) joint lawsuit against Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). A new directive issued on Monday, July 6 by ICE forces international students—specifically non-immigrant students on F-1 or M-1 visas—who attend American universities moving entirely online to return to their home countries. International students who plan to take more than one online course this semester at an in-person college must also leave the United States. Schools that previously planned to be exclusively online have until July 15 to submit a changed plan if desired. President Donald Trump’s administration supports the in-person reopening of public and private colleges and universities in the fall, and the most recent attack on international students serves as a form of leverage to require schools to resume full operations.
Harvard University and MIT’s lawsuit cited an abuse of discretion by ICE. “ICE’s action also leaves universities across the country, including Harvard and MIT, in the untenable situation of either moving forward with their carefully calibrated, thoughtful, and difficult decisions to proceed with their curricula fully or largely online in the fall of 2020—which, under ICE’s new directive, would undermine the education, safety, and future prospects of their international students and their campus community—or to attempt, with just weeks before classes resume, to provide in-person education despite the grave risk to public health and safety that such a change would entail,” said the filed complaint. It also claimed that ICE’s edict was “procedurally defective” under the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946, which governs the way federal agencies can operate and ensures that they are subject to judicial review.
Amicus curiae briefs—documents submitted to the court from non-members of a lawsuit who offer advice or insight to advance a position and have an interest in the outcome—have also been filed or are pending filing by multiple institutions, including Bates College, Brandeis University, Brown University, Carnegie Mellon University, Colgate University, the College of William and Mary, the College of Wooster, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Dickinson College, Duke University, Gallaudet University, Georgetown University, Gettysburg College, Haverford College, Indiana University, the Johns Hopkins University, Middlebury College, Michigan State University, New York University, Northeastern University, Northwestern University, Pennsylvania State University, Princeton University, Purdue University, Rice University, Stanford University, Swarthmore College, Trinity College, Tufts University, the University of California, the University of Dayton, the University of Denver, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California, Williams College and Yale University. The collective brief filed by these schools stated, “These institutions represent a diverse array of small and large, public and private institutions throughout the nation. They are each dedicated to bettering the lives of their students and communities, including during the current COVID-19 global pandemic. Though diverse in faith, academic mission, geography, and size, these institutions are deeply concerned with and impacted by ICE’s July 6 directive.”
Lawmakers in Congress launched a separate effort to demand the withdrawal of this policy. Ninety-nine Democratic Party members of the Senate and House of Representatives stated that the announcement “is motivated not by public health considerations, but rather by animus toward immigrants, by a goal of forcing schools to reopen even as COVID-19 cases are rising, and by a desire to create an illusion of normalcy during this unprecedented public health emergency.” Indeed, Acting Deputy DHS Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said of the directive: “This is now setting the rules for one semester, which we’ll finalize later this month that will, again, encourage schools to reopen.”
On July 7, Vassar College president Elizabeth Bradley condemned the new ICE guidelines as “cruel and unnecessary” and stated that Vassar’s blended program of in-person and remote learning will allow international students to stay enrolled and remain in the country.
“As leadership of colleges and universities throughout the world work to provide the highest quality higher education in the safest circumstances, this oppressive new edict has no place in higher education. It will have a lasting, devastating impact on students and their families,” she wrote.
According to the Institute for Higher Education, over one million international students currently reside within the United States. Many cannot safely and successfully complete their education at home, due to poor quality internet, censored internet services, and distracting or even unsafe learning conditions. International travel bans also limit who may be able to legally return home. The amount affected by ICE’s order is currently unknown, as students who are unwilling or unable to return to their home countries may transfer, or their colleges may provide an in-person option, but it is clear that hundreds of thousands of students have been thrust into yet another newfound uncertainty.