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Mass. colleges ask immigration authorities to allow international students to stay

Leaders from the University of Massachusetts system were among the education officials who signed Friday’s letter to the Department of Homeland Security and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Leaders from the University of Massachusetts system were among the education officials who signed Friday’s letter to the Department of Homeland Security and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

A coalition of Massachusetts public universities and community colleges is calling on on federal immigration authorities to rescind new rules issued last week that deny visas to international students whose college classes will meet online in the fall.

Educators said in a Friday letter that they were “stunned” by the announcement Monday that international students could lose their visas despite an exemption granted in March, as universities and colleges began closing campuses in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This rule change is cruel, irresponsible, and delivers more anxiety and confusion for international students in Massachusetts,” they said, asking that the exemption made in March be reinstated.

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At least one local student already has been blocked from entering the United States: a man from Belarus who is enrolled at Harvard University. His case came to light in US District Court in Boston on Thursday, as an attorney for Harvard argued against the new policy in a lawsuit filed by Harvard and MIT.

Friday’s letter to the Department of Homeland Security and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement was signed by leaders from the University of Massachusetts system and the Commonwealth’s nine state universities and 15 community colleges, as well as state Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos E. Santiago.

The educators said international students “are incredibly important to the cultural fabric of our institutions and the Commonwealth” and they “contributed $3.2 billion and supported more than 38,000 jobs in the Commonwealth’s economy” during the 2018-2019 academic year.

These students are crucial to the success of the state’s institutions of higher education, the college leaders said, and their potential loss of visas “threatens the futures of many international students amidst quite grim public health prospects over the next several months.”

On Wednesday, Mayor Martin J. Walsh wrote a letter to a senior ICE official to express his opposition to the policy, which he described as an attempt by the Trump administration to force schools reopen in the fall amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. He urged ICE to reverse course before the policy “causes unnecessary chaos and threatens the safety and well-being of all our communities.”

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“The federal government’s attempt to force schools to reopen is dangerous, and the safety of all our students and the surrounding communities is paramount,” Walsh wrote.

His letter said more than 70,000 international students live in Massachusetts, and some make a home here after graduation through a employee-based visa program. Federal government statistics show that, in 2016, more than 15,000 Boston residents were authorized to work in the United States through the H-1B visa program, Walsh wrote.

Asking international students to leave the area during the pandemic “is not only cruel, unsafe, and unfair, but also may make continuing their education impossible.”

“Some of our students come from countries with restrictive governments, limited access to the Internet and coursework, and struggles to meet basic human needs,” Walsh wrote.

Laura Crimaldi of the Globe staff contributed to this report.






Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.