Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, joined by her counterparts from 16 other states and the District of Columbia, sued the Trump administration Monday over its new rule that could prohibit thousands of international students from studying in the United States this fall.
The lawsuit seeks an immediate injunction against the new policy and comes amid growing opposition to the proposed regulation, which would ban foreign students from studying in the United States if their courses are held online this fall. The fierce pushback underscores the critical role foreign students now play in the US economy — and in helping universities balance their budgets.
Harvard and MIT filed a separate but similar suit last week and 59 colleges and universities, including many elite New England schools, have now thrown their support behind that effort. The Trump administration plan would require international students to take classes in-person this fall if they wish to remain in the United States but comes as many schools have announced that they plan to teach online this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
College students held a protest rally outside the State House Monday, and public officials at the state and local levels have similarly decried the plan. The cities of Boston and Los Angeles, along with 24 other cities, towns and counties, filed a separate brief Monday supporting Harvard and MIT.
The Healey lawsuit, backed by attorneys general from states including Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, calls the federal plan to bar international students “cruel, abrupt, and unlawful.”
“The Trump Administration didn’t even attempt to explain the basis for this senseless rule, which forces schools to choose between keeping their international students enrolled and protecting the health and safety of their campuses,” Healey said in a written statement.
That lawsuit was filed Monday in US District Court in Massachusetts against the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversee student visas.
Meanwhile, a high-stakes hearing in the Harvard case 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. Burroughs is expected to rule before Wednesday, the deadline for schools to certify to the federal government how they plan to conduct courses in the fall.
The 59 schools that back the Harvard/MIT suit — including Boston University, Amherst College, Brandeis University, Brown University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, and Yale University — voiced their support this week in a legal brief, filed in US District Court in Boston.
In the brief, the schools accused the Trump administration of playing politics.
The “true motivation,” the schools argued, “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 ... is to ‘encourage schools to reopen.’ "
All the opposition comes less than a week after ICE officials startled the higher education community with their new plan. It would forbid international students from living in the United States 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 United States if their school conducts a hybrid program, with some courses taught in person and others online.
The lawsuit by Healey and the other attorneys general argues that the new rule would harm not only students but colleges, which have spent months planning safe ways for students to resume their studies.
The suit says the new rule fails to consider the health of students, faculty, and staff, if international students are required to attend courses in person, and fails to consider the fact that in some countries, remote learning is not possible for students.
The suit says the rule would impose significant financial harm to schools because they could lose out on the millions of dollars that international students pay in tuition, housing, dining, and other fees. The suit argues that the new rule would also harm the economy, because it would preclude international students from staying to live in the United States. There are 77,000 international students with active visas in Massachusetts and they contribute $3.2 billion to the state economy every year.
The suit also argues that colleges and universities are the very institutions that have a chance of conquering the pandemic, so it is counterintuitive to curtail their ability to continue to educate their students.
The Healey lawsuit includes filings from 40 Massachusetts schools, including Northeastern University, Boston University, and the University of Massachusetts, each explaining how the rule would harm their school and students.
“If allowed to take effect, these rules will create costly, confusing and unnecessary hurdles for our international students and our campus communities, place millions of dollars in university revenue at risk, and deprive the Commonwealth’s economy of a valuable source of talent and innovation,” said UMass president Martin Meehan in a statement on Monday.
Others have also decried the new plan. In a letter sent last Thursday, US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, US Representative Ayanna Pressley, and other members of Congress urged the heads of ICE and Homeland Security to abandon the planned change.
More than 100 members of the Massachusetts Legislature, including the House speaker and Senate president, have signed their own bipartisan letter asking the Trump administration to rescind the plan.
The other states joining Healey’s suit are Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The California attorney general has also filed a similar suit.
On college campuses, students have mobilized in support of their international classmates. On Monday a group of Emerson College students called on president Lee Pelton and the administration to do more to help International students navigate the uncertainty that the federal plan has induced.
At the rally on the steps of the State House on Monday, international students described the anxiety that has come as a result of the rule.
“It creates a lot of financial uncertainty, professional uncertainty,” said Oya Gursoy, 22, a senior at Harvard College from Turkey. Gursoy said with the time zone difference and other logistical challenges at home, she would not be able to study remotely.
“It’s absolutely not possible to just go back and do this from [home,]” she said.
About 75 people attended the gathering. They chanted “Up, up with education, down down with deportation!” and held signs that said “Crush some ICE,” and “I love someone on an F1” and “I am not a visa!”
Speaking into the microphone through his mask, Davy Deng, 24 a Chinese student studying epidemiology at Harvard, said it might be possible to work from home, but the bookwork is not what draws people to a US education.
“What attracted me and many other people to America is the diversity. This creative, vibrant community of scholars,” he said.
Travis Andersen can be reached at email@example.com.