Attorney General Becerra, State Public Education Leaders Sue Trump Administration for Arbitrary Policy That Threatens to Spread COVID-19 in Colleges Across the Country

Thursday, July 9, 2020
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Policy forces schools to choose between educating all of their students or letting universities turn into “super-spreaders” of COVID-19 

SACRAMENTO – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, and California State University Chancellor Timothy White today announced the State of California is filing a lawsuit challenging the Trump Administration’s unlawful policy that threatens to exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 and exile hundreds of thousands of college students studying in the United States through the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). At a time when COVID-19 cases are surging across the state, the policy requires international students to take classes in person — putting themselves, teachers, other students, and the community at large at risk of getting and spreading the coronavirus — or be subject to deportation. Beyond the myriad significant direct harms to individual students, the mission of California’s higher education institutions would suffer if international students are forced to disenroll because of the Trump Administration’s arbitrary actions. It will also likely further burden educational institutions at a time when the state faces significant budget shortfalls and schools are already struggling to confront the economic and public health impacts of COVID-19.

"Shame on the Trump Administration for risking not only the education opportunities for students who earned the chance to go to college, but now their health and well-being as well,” said Attorney General Becerra. “Today, President Trump appears set to do just that — amidst a global pandemic of historic proportions. Not on our watch. No one graduates more students from college or assembles a more talented and diverse group of future leaders than California. Today’s lawsuit rests on America’s enduring principle that everyone who works hard and plays by the rules can earn a chance to get ahead. We'll see the Trump Administration in court."

“With this lawsuit, California is standing up for the 21,000 international students who attend our community colleges and standing up for our right to continue teaching and learning in a safe and responsible way during the pandemic,” said California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley. “We will not sacrifice the benefit of the diversity of experiences and perspectives that international students bring to our colleges, nor will we sacrifice the safety of any student, faculty, or staff member at our 115 colleges. State and local officials are in the best position to determine reopening approaches based on public health conditions. Attorney General Becerra’s lawsuit seeks to quickly turn back this punitive federal directive.”

“The California State University stands in the strongest opposition to the policy guidance issued Monday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” said California State University Chancellor Timothy White. “It is a callous and inflexible policy that unfairly disrupts our more-than 10,300 international students’ progress to a degree, unnecessarily placing them in an extremely difficult position. And it deprives all of our students — and the communities, state, and nation we serve — of the remarkable contributions of these international students. The CSU applauds the California Attorney General’s decision to take strong action to oppose ICE’s policy guidance, and we will fully support this effort.”

As the state with the largest university systems in the nation, California is committed to doing everything it can to protect hardworking people who have earned the right to study and contribute to our communities. The Trump Administration’s new policy on SEVP flies directly in the face of guidance it previously issued and advertised as being in place for the duration of the pandemic emergency, which universities and students across the country relied upon to make plans for the upcoming school year and protect the safety and well-being of their students. Moreover, with new COVID-19 cases averaging more than 7,500 a day in California over the last week, the Trump Administration policy threatens to also turn California’s colleges and universities into “super-spreaders” of the disease. 

Prior to the pandemic, SEVP students were required to take the majority of their classes in person. On March 13, 2020, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which oversees SEVP, issued guidance to exempt students from the program’s requirements in light of the ongoing pandemic and efforts by universities across the country to adapt to the challenges of COVID-19. In its guidance, ICE declared that the exemptions would be in effect for the duration of the emergency. On July 6, 2020, in a drastic about face and after many schools had already announced plans for the fall semester, ICE reversed course on that guidance and announced the agency would formally issue a policy that will disqualify students from SEVP for taking classes entirely online during the pandemic. For those enrolled in programs with no in-person classes available, ICE’s only guidance to students was to either leave the country or transfer to another program.

The rule completely ignores that, among other things, many students may already have signed a year-long lease to rent an apartment or face difficulties being able to travel internationally during COVID-19. It also ignores that a significant number of professors are older adults who, particularly if they are required to accommodate in-person classes, are at a higher risk of suffering severe cases of COVID-19. In addition, should SEVP students be able to participate in a hybrid program with some classes in person and others online, their university would be responsible for certifying their participation in such a program through a Form I-20. As a result, ICE would be requiring some universities to complete and verify thousands of documents — only weeks in advance of the new school year — just to guarantee that their students are not potentially targeted for removal from the United States. In the complaint, Attorney General Becerra asserts, among other things, that the temporary final rule is arbitrary and capricious, in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

Attorney General Becerra is committed to protecting the rights of people in California and across the country. Earlier this week, he led a multistate lawsuit challenging Secretary DeVos’ attempt to siphon pandemic relief funds away from K-12 public schools. In June, the Attorney General filed suit to challenge the Trump Administration’s unlawful new rule that weakens protections for survivors of sexual violence in schools — and simultaneously forces schools to divert attention away from critical working being done to address the effects of COVID-19. He pushed back against the Trump Administration’s refusal to open a special enrollment period on HealthCare.Gov in response to the pandemic. Attorney General Becerra also helped secure a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. Following the DACA decision, the Attorney General issued an alert in English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese to help people across the state avoid immigration scams. Also in June, the California Department of Justice, on behalf of the California Community Colleges, secured a preliminary injunction against Secretary DeVos’ arbitrary and unlawful requirements to block pandemic relief from approximately 800,000 California community college students, including Dreamers.

A copy of the lawsuit is available here.

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