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California sues Trump administration over policy restricting international students at state colleges

Students fill every desk in an Accounting 101 classroom at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa
An Accounting 101 classroom is full at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. Community colleges and the Cal State system are supporting the state’s lawsuit against the Trump administration over a new policy restricting international students attending online college classes.
(Los Angeles Times)

California sued the Trump administration Thursday to challenge new visa rules that bar international students from staying in the U.S. if they take all of their classes online, arguing it could worsen the spread of COVID-19 to require attendance in person.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Northern California is supported by leaders from the California State University and California Community Colleges systems and alleges that the new federal policy unfairly harms students and that campuses would suffer financially from the lost revenue.

“It is a callous and inflexible policy that unfairly disrupts our more-than 10,300 international students’ progress to a degree, unnecessarily placing them in an extremely difficult position,” Cal State Chancellor Timothy White said in a statement.

The Cal State system plans to offer primarily online classes this fall because of the resurgence of COVID-19 in California.

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The policy guidance issued Monday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is also seen as harmful to California Community Colleges, at which some 21,000 international students are enrolled, according to Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley.

“We will not sacrifice the benefit of the diversity of experiences and perspectives that international students bring to our colleges, nor will we sacrifice the safety of any student, faculty or staff member at our 115 colleges,” Oakley said.

The lawsuit seeking an injunction to block the change in policy says the federal government failed to follow procedures for notice and comment for rule making, and it alleges the change will harm university budgets and endanger the health of college students and faculty if the schools are forced to hold in-person classes during the pandemic.

“In addition to being cruel, Defendants’ attempt at a policy change to force in-person learning in the middle of a pandemic is absurd and the essence of arbitrary and capricious conduct in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act,” the lawsuit says.

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The University of California is separately planning to go to court to seek a temporary restraining order to bar enforcement of the new federal policy on grounds it violates the rights of the university and its students.

More than 27,000 UC undergraduates last year were nonresident international students who could be affected.

At the same time, USC has joined an amicus brief supporting a lawsuit filed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that challenges the federal rules, USC President Carol Folt said on social media, adding that the university is “actively considering all other legal options.”

The new federal rules for the Student and Exchange Visitor Program bar nonimmigrant students who take a full course load online from remaining in the U.S. and block the return of those who left the country during the coronavirus outbreak.

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International students who wish to stay in the U.S. would have to enroll at a university providing in-person classes or a hybrid program of online and in-person courses.

In a statement, ICE said that international students had been granted a temporary exemption allowing them to attend online courses because of COVID-19.

“This policy permitted nonimmigrant students to take more online courses than normally permitted by federal regulation to maintain their nonimmigrant status during the COVID-19 emergency,” the agency said.

However, California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said he is going to court to preserve the ability of international students to study in the U.S.

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“Shame on the Trump administration for risking not only the education opportunities for students who earned the chance to go to college, but now their health and well-being as well,” Becerra said.

The lawsuit is the 86th filed by Becerra against the Trump administration, with others challenging federal policies including those on the environment and healthcare.


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