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International students in California file suit over new visa guidelines

A tour group gathers around the Tommy Trojan statue at the center of USC's University Park campus on a sunny day
A group gathers around the Tommy Trojan statue at USC. Seven international graduate students at USC, UC Irvine and UCLA have filed a lawsuit over new Trump administration rules that would bar them from remaining in the U.S. if they enroll only in online courses.
(Los Angeles Times)

Seven international graduate students in California filed a lawsuit Friday seeking to prevent the Trump administration from enforcing guidelines issued this week that would bar them from remaining in the country if they enroll only in online courses this fall.

“The … policy requiring foreign students to attend in person classes, even where their universities have determined that to do so will cost lives and endanger the campus community, in keeping with the judgment of public health experts, treats them as pawns for the president’s politically motivated decision,” attorney Mark Rosenbaum of Public Counsel, the nonprofit law firm that filed the suit, said in a statement.

The students’ lawsuit, filed in the Central District of California, follows another filed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University this week, to which 180 colleges and universities signed an amicus brief in support.

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On Monday, the Student Exchange and Visitor Program, under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, announced that international students will not be allowed to remain in the U.S. if they enroll at schools or programs that hold classes entirely online this fall. Those students must depart the country or transfer to an institution holding in-person classes, ICE said.

The announcement prompted outcry among higher education leaders in California and across the nation, as well as disbelief and worry among students.

The seven plaintiffs in the case filed Friday are from China and Germany and are enrolled at the USC Gould School of Law, UC Irvine School of Law and a UCLA graduate program in cinema and media studies. The complaint said they will face “financial calamity,” suffer health consequences and be forced to pause or halt their education and jeopardize their career prospects if made to return to their home countries.

Some of the students had already signed leases on apartments and don’t have the means to pay for a return flight or housing in their home country, the complaint said. One would be separated from his wife. The students from China in particular would lack access to the tools they need for online learning, including Google products, and the time difference would put them at a disadvantage for participating in discussion-based classes and on-campus job interviews, the complaint said.

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In March, the Student Exchange and Visitor Program issued guidelines stating that international students would be given flexibility in order to continue progress in their degrees during the coronavirus emergency. According to the lawsuit, the guidance laid out Monday abruptly and without appropriate notice or rationale reversed course. It also said the action violated international students’ right to due process.

The suit seeks a temporary restraining order and an order vacating the policy.


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