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59 colleges and universities back Harvard, MIT in challenge to ICE directive on international students

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS - JULY 08: A view of a gate to Harvard Yard on the campus of Harvard University on July 08, 2020.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS - JULY 08: A view of a gate to Harvard Yard on the campus of Harvard University on July 08, 2020. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)Maddie Meyer/Getty

Fifty-nine colleges and universities on Monday backed Harvard and MIT in their legal challenge to a July 6 directive from the Trump administration requiring international students to take fall classes in-person amid the COVID-19 pandemic to remain in the country, even though many schools have announced plans to hold classes online.

The 59 schools - including Boston University, Amherst College, Brandeis University, Brown University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College and Yale University - voiced support for Harvard and MIT in a legal document known as an amicus brief filed in US District Court in Boston.

A high-stakes hearing in that courthouse is scheduled for Tuesday, when lawyers for Harvard and MIT will ask Judge Allison D. Burroughs to issue an injunction blocking the federal government from enforcing the July 6 directive on foreign students.

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ICE officials announced their new plan last week. It would forbid international students from living in the US if their schools elect to hold all courses online this fall, due to the pandemic. In normal times, international students are not allowed to take more than one course online, but the federal government waived that requirement this spring and summer because of the pandemic. The new rule is, for the most part, a return to the normal policy, but includes an option for students to return to the US if their school conducts a hybrid program, with some courses taught in person and others online.

In the amicus brief, the schools backing Harvard and MIT accused the Trump administration of playing politics with the sudden return to the requirement that overseas students take their courses in-person to stay here. Many colleges and universities have announced plans to hold fall courses online for some or all students in light of the ongoing pandemic.

The filing said the “true motivation for the July 6 Directive has nothing to do with ensuring that students engage in a ‘full course of study’ or with protecting the integrity of the student visa program. Instead, its purpose—as expressed by Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli—is to ‘encourage schools to reopen.’ ... In essence, Defendants are using the vulnerability of international students as leverage to force a broad reopening for reasons wholly disconnected from the underlying statute and regulation, and without regard to students’ ability ‘to continue to make normal progress in a full course of study.‘”

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The Department of Homeland Security didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail message seeking comment Monday morning.

The amicus brief from the schools - which also included Bowdoin College, Colby College, Columbia University, Middlebury College, Northeastern University, Princeton University, Smith College, Stanford University, Suffolk University, Tufts University, Wellesley College, Williams College and Worcester Polytechnic Institute - quoted international students who fear their lives and educational progress could be upended by the requirement for in-person coursework.

Among the students cited in the filing was Max Jordan Nguemeni Tiako, a Yale medical student from Cameroon who recently told the Washington Post that “there’s simply no sustainable infrastructure in place [in Cameroon] for distance learning that would allow students to keep up with the pace of classes in the United States.”

An unnamed Cornell student was quoted in the filing as saying that sleep has been difficult amid “the uncertainty of being at risk of having to leave the country at any time if the university is forced to close its campus due to a possible outbreak. ... I feel it like a punch in the face after making such enormous efforts and sacrifices to achieve a lifetime dream.”

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The cities of Boston and Los Angeles, along with 24 other cities, towns and counties, filed a separate amicus brief Monday supporting Harvard and MIT.

“The Trump administration is trying to use this rule to pressure schools to open in the fall, but now is not the time for reckless, politically-motivated actions,” wrote Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh in a letter to ICE Acting Director Matthew T. Albence, which Walsh’s office included in a statement Monday. “The City of Boston is a welcoming community for students of all backgrounds, and we will continue to stand with our schools and their international student populations to protect their right to study, contribute, and succeed here.”

Walsh’s words were echoed by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

“The Trump Administration is defying the best guidance from public health leaders, the best interests of our local colleges and universities and international students, and the best traditions of our nation as a beacon of hope, welcome, and belonging,” Garcetti said in Monday’s statement from Walsh’s office. “The COVID-19 crisis is a threat to the health and well-being of people on and off campus - not a weapon meant to advance a dangerous agenda that treats international students as political pawns. Our cities will only push forward on reopening based on data, facts, science, and medical expertise.”

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Monday’s filings came on the same day Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office announced that she had brought a separate lawsuit, also in US District Court in Boston, challenging the July 6 directive on international students. Seventeen attorneys general have joined Healey in that effort.

Like the litigation brought by Harvard and MIT, Healey’s suit also names the US Department of Homeland Security and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversee student visas, as defendants.

William F. Lee, a lawyer representing Harvard and MIT, said during a remote hearing last week on the schools’ lawsuit that Wednesday begins a “whole series of dates” where students must decide whether to enroll or defer their studies, and what coursework to take.

“Folks have to decide, quite honestly, what country they’re going to” pursue their studies in, Lee said.

During an earlier hearing on the matter Thursday, Lee told Burroughs that an unnamed Harvard student from Belarus had been turned away Wednesday from an airport in Minsk, according to Bloomberg News.

Laura Krantz of the Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.