Cornell supports legal challenge of U.S. visa restrictions

Cornell has joined an amici curiae (friends-of-the-court) brief supporting Harvard and MIT’s challenge of a new Trump administration rule that would deny visas to international students who take only online classes this fall.

In the brief filed July 12 in the U.S. District Court in Boston, 59 public and private colleges and universities asked a federal judge to prohibit enforcement nationally of an “arbitrary and capricious” directive issued July 6 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The directive revoked guidance issued in March amid the coronavirus outbreak that temporarily allowed foreign students with visas to take more than one course online at a time when Cornell and other institutions were forced to deactivate their campuses and rapidly shift all instruction online to protect public health.

Now, international students have been told they must leave the U.S. if they do not take in-person classes, which some schools have determined they cannot safely offer this fall amid the ongoing pandemic.

“The emergency persists,” the amicus brief states, “yet the government’s policy has suddenly and drastically changed, throwing amici’s preparations into disarray and causing significant harm and turmoil.”

Because Cornell has announced plans to reactivate its Ithaca campus this fall with a hybrid model including both in-person and online instruction, the university generally does not expect the new visa restrictions to affect its international students, who last year numbered more than 5,700, from 115 countries, according to Global Cornell. However, all colleges face the risk that a virus outbreak could again require a midsemester shift to virtual instruction, potentially putting those students at risk of deportation if the ICE rule stands.

After Harvard and MIT, California also recently sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE, to block the new rule. Seventeen more states and the District of Columbia followed suit July 13.

The amicus brief filed in support of Harvard and MIT’s request for an injunction cites comments by President Martha E. Pollack on the critical contributions international students make to campus communities.

“When we discourage or turn away international students, we lose much more than the students themselves,” Pollack said. “We lose their inventions and innovation, their collaboration and contributions. We lose the richness of their learned experiences in other cultures, languages, communities and political systems.”

Pollack announced Cornell’s intent to join the amicus brief, and to actively lobby elected officials to change ICE’s position, in a July 8 statement.

“To each of our international students, I want to say directly: You belong here, and we will fight for you to be here,” Pollack said in the statement. “We stand with you and with all of our international faculty, staff and the more than 28,000 international Cornell alumni around the world.”

During a July 9 town hall with international students, parents and alumni, Pollack added that the university was “deeply disappointed, and deeply frustrated, by immigration policies that are making it so difficult for our students to return [to campus].”

The brief argues the ICE directive is unlawful because it effected a major change in regulations without considering the reliance institutions of higher education throughout the United States have placed on ICE’s March guidance, which indicated flexibility would be afforded international students for the duration of the pandemic. The brief also cites the severe consequences for schools and for students as well as its imposition of overly burdensome compliance requirements – all without required explanation or justification.

The brief highlights examples of international students already coping with hardships due to the uncertainty surrounding their immigration status, including one from Cornell who reports anxiety and difficulty sleeping.

“If I am forced to leave, there is no certainty that I will find a flight as my country closed its borders months ago and cases are increasing rapidly there,” the brief quoted the student as saying. “Also, there is no certitude that I will be able to come again for the spring semester. … I feel it like a punch in the face after making such enormous efforts and sacrifices to achieve a lifetime dream.”

The full text of the brief is available on the Global Cornell website.

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Rebecca Valli