USC joins coalition of 19 universities in lawsuit against new ICE international student policy

USC has joined a coalition of 19 schools in filing suit against the federal government over a new policy decision that bars entry into the U.S. and threatens to deport international students whose universities are fully online this fall, President Carol Folt announced in a communitywide email Monday. The lawsuit follows the University’s decision last week to join an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit filed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Following last week’s government directive requiring international students to take at least one in-person class to maintain their visa status, USC immediately began reaching out to bring together some of the leading research institutions, liberal arts colleges, and public universities in the western United States to block the directive from being enforced,” the email read.

The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court in Oregon, includes Western schools such as University of Oregon, Arizona State University, the Claremont Colleges, Stanford University, Caltech and others. The defendants named in the lawsuit are the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf and Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence.

“By issuing this arbitrary and misguided new directive – without any advance warning – the government is forcing international students to make potentially life-altering choices with no apparent consideration for the burdens it places on the students or on higher education itself,” Folt wrote.

The decision, announced by ICE last week, reverses guidelines from early March that allowed international students to temporarily take online courses due to the coronavirus pandemic. The decision also required institutions to decide whether they will be offering solely remote instruction by July 15 and to release their operational plans by August 1, hindering flexibility in creating efficient plans to ensure the health and safety of their campus communities, the lawsuit read. Schools were also asked to submit I-20 forms — a form that provides information on a student’s visa status to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services —  of students enrolled for the fall semester by July 15. In Fall 2019, international students made up 25% of the student population.

The complaint alleged that the new order altered plans for the fall semester, citing the need to restructure academic programming to ensure F-1 students are able to continue their education without risk of deportation or loss of their visa status. 

The lawsuit also stated that no prior notice of the new mandate was provided to institutions before July 6 and ICE did not provide any indication that it had considered the decision’s effects on the health of students, faculty, staff and surrounding campus communities with regard to the ongoing pandemic. Plaintiffs cited that the “one-size-fits-all” policy takes away institutions’ abilities to properly structure fall semester plans according to their own needs and concerns.

Along with creating new alternate reopening plans to accommodate international students, the complaint alleged the plaintiffs will suffer “additional harm from the departure of [F-1] students,” citing their contributions to research programs, as teaching assistants to undergraduate courses and as student athletes. 

“In short, international students, including F-1 students, are a critical component of Plaintiffs’ cultural and academic environments,” the complaint read. “If any number of those students are forced to depart the United States … Plaintiffs will be unable to offer their students the same kind of diverse and engaging academic experience as they have in the past, and Plaintiffs’ national and global standing as leading institutions of higher education will be diminished.”

The lawsuit also cited the negative effects the new policy creates for international students including the risk of deportation, financial hardships, displacement and the prospect of being unable to reapply to the F-1 program to continue their post-secondary education. 

To support the extenuating circumstances facing international students and further their claim against the ICE policy, the brief lists anonymous student situations, including that of a USC student who is immunocompromised and is fearful of traveling back to the United States and a USC student living with immunocompromised roommates to which in-person classes would create risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

The plaintiffs bring two counts against defendants that are under violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, a statute that regulates federal agencies in creating new regulations, including requirements to publish notices of finalized policies and provide opportunities for public comment. The counts allege ICE failed to provide reasoned decision-making to the new order that caused institutions to divert resources and that the rationale for the July mandate was not to “resume the carefully balanced protections implemented by federal regulations” but to coerce schools to reopen. The plaintiffs, on behalf of their students, call for the reinstatement of previous March 13 exceptions allowing F-1 students to attend courses remotely. 

“We simply cannot stay silent when the government is clearly using our international students as leverage to force a wholesale reopening of college campuses in the midst of a global health crisis with no regard for public health guidance,” Folt wrote. 

Lauren Mattice contributed to this report.