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Coronavirus: US states sue Trump administration over new student visa guidelines

Seventeen US states ask federal judge to block ICE ruling that forces international students to take in-person classes or leave the country
Trump has been pushing for reopening schools despite an uptick in coronavirus infections across the country (AFP/File photo)
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Seventeen US states and the District of Columbia have filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration to block the implementation of an order that would require international students to take in-person classes in order to stay in the country amid the spread of the coronavirus.

The lawsuit filed in federal district court in Massachusetts on Monday says the new order causes "irreparable harm to the public health and the economy" in US states.

Plaintiffs include the attorneys general of Massachusetts, Virginia, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  

The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) sparked outrage when it said last week that student visa holders "must depart the country" or switch schools if their university is offering online-only classes in the fall.

The states are seeking an immediate injunction to thwart the order as the number of daily confirmed coronavirus cases continue to rise across the country. 

Pandemic worsening

The lawsuit highlights an ICE directive issued on 13 March allowing international students to take online classes "for the duration of the emergency", stressing that the Covid-19 crisis has not ended.

When the first decree was issued, the US had 4,575 confirmed cases and 55 related deaths. 

On 6 July, the day it was revoked, "the country recorded 47,375 new positive Covid-19 tests in a single day, and by which date a total of 122,915 known deaths had occurred in the United States, with hundreds more occurring every day", the lawsuit said.

Moreover, ICE failed to offer a compelling reason behind the change of policy, making the decision "arbitrary and capricious", the lawsuit argued.

"It failed to consider the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff, and the untold other residents of our States with whom they interact," the legal complaint says of ICE. 

'This is just another example of the Trump administration using our educational system to make a political statement at the expense of our students and schools'

- Dana Nessel, Michigan attorney general

"It failed to consider the tremendous costs and burden this abrupt reversal would impose on our institutions of higher learning; and it failed to consider that, for many of our international students, remote learning in the countries and communities from which they come would impede their studies or be simply impossible."

The reversal leaves universities across the country with an "agonising dilemma", the legal complaint reads. They have to start offering in-person classes on a variety of subjects to help their foreign students remain in the country or risk losing those students.

"Either choice will inflict harm. In-person instruction offered only for the purposes of meeting this arbitrary Directive risks sacrificing the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff - and, indeed, our States more generally," the lawsuit says. 

"Losing the presence - and in many cases, the enrollment - of international students would result in the loss of invaluable perspectives and contributions by these students, hundreds of millions of dollars in foregone tuition as well as fees for housing and other services, and hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue for our States' economies."

ICE's order came during a political debate about handling the virus as President Donald Trump pushes for reopening the economy ahead of the November elections despite a spike in the number of infections.

Coronavirus and politics

The legal complaint includes a screenshot of a tweet by Trump - posted hours before ICE published the directive -  calling on schools to reopen.

"Coercing schools into holding more in-person classes in the fall - regardless of the schools' assessment of the health and safety risks of doing so - harms the Plaintiff States' ability to regulate their institutions and protect the public," the lawsuit reads.

'Returning to Lebanon is not an option': Students face new crisis in US
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Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said international students play an "incredibly valuable role" at the state's academic institutions and contribute to the local economy.

"This is just another example of the Trump administration using our educational system to make a political statement at the expense of our students and schools," Nessel said in a statement.

Arab-American advocates have decried the directive, saying that it especially harms students from the Middle East who may not be able to return to their home countries, many of which are plagued by instability and may lack the necessary tools for remote learning, including access to the internet.

"Going back to Lebanon when it's all just falling apart right now is just not an option," a Lebanese PhD student at the City University of New York told MEE last week.