Exclusive: Harvard, MIT, Others sue to stop Trump from deporting 16,000 Nigerian students


A consortium of American Ivy League universities led by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), both in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have sued the Trump administration, seeking to block a directive that would strip foreign college students of their visas if the courses they are taking this Fall semester are entirely online. According to the new policy, foreign students enrolled in American institutions must to transfer to in-person colleges or they will be deported. The US State Department also announced that going forward, it will no longer issue visas to students to attend schools that offer online classes.


The guidelines issued Monday by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would bar international students, including 16,039 Nigerian students from staying in America, if they attend a school that offers only online courses during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Most US colleges and universities have resolved to pursue the fall semester using a hybrid model of in-person and online classes while some, including Harvard, have migrated all classes online. While Princeton announced it will be filing an amicus brief to support the joint Harvard/MIT lawsuit, the University of California (UC) said it plans to file another suit against the government over the policy.


The Harvard/MIT Civil Action lawsuit No. 1:20-cv-11283 is seeking a declaratory and injunctive relief against the US Department of Homeland Security; the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Chad F. Wolf, in his official capacity as Acting Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security; and Matthew Albence, in his official capacity as Acting Director of ICE; as defendants. The two universities said the new policy would prevent many of their 9,000 combined international students and hundreds of thousands of students at other universities across the country from staying in the United States. Their suit, filed in federal court in Boston, seeks a temporary restraining order preventing the government from enforcing the policy because it violates the Administrative Procedure Act.


The lawsuit, a copy of which was obtained by Huhuonline.com is asking the court “to set aside” the ICE action which the suit described as “contrary to law and arbitrary and capricious… which will cause an imminent, concrete, and irreparable risk to Plaintiffs’ ability to achieve their educational missions unless halted by this Court. Plaintiffs also have standing to assert claims on behalf of their F-1 visa-holding students, who face the imminent, concrete, and irreparable risk of harm to themselves, their families, their educations, their short-term and long-term health, and their future education and employment prospects if Defendants’ actions are not halted by this Court.” 


Nigeria is the largest source of African immigration in the United States with an estimated population of 376,000 immigrants, including first- and second-generation children, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Massachusetts is among the 10 top states with a high Nigerian-born population, according to the American Community Survey. Rachel Canty, Deputy Director, ICE Student and Exchange Visitor Program, told Huhuonline.com that Nigeria has the highest number of students from Africa studying in America. Canty estimated the number at over 16,039 Nigerians of the 36,000 students from Sub Saharan Africa currently in the US.


In a statement, the University of California (UC) President; former Arizona Governor and Secretary of Homeland Security, under President Barack Obama, Janet Ann Napolitano described the ICE decision as “mean-spirited, arbitrary and damaging to America.” Like Harvard, MIT and Princeton, UC had resolved that all students, enrolled on its 23 campuses, will take fall semester classes online. “The safety of our students and the campus community is our paramount concern and guides what we do,” Napolitano said in the statement, adding: “The idea that the federal government would add to the burden of students and universities working to navigate this global health crisis beggars belief. UC will fight this blatant disregard for the law and public health with all the legal means at our disposal.”


The Harvard/MIT lawsuit said: “Immediately after the Fourth of July weekend, ICE threw Harvard and MIT— indeed, virtually all of higher education in the United States—into chaos. On July 6, 2020, ICE announced that it was rescinding its COVID-19 exemption for international students, requiring all students on F-1 visas whose university curricula are entirely online to depart the country, and barring any such students currently outside the United States from entering or reentering the United States. ICE also purported to require schools whose classes would be entirely online to submit an “operational change plan” no later than Wednesday, July 15, 2020—nine days after the change was announced. It also announced that universities that have adopted a hybrid model—a mixture of online and in-person classes—will have to certify for each student on an F1 visa that the “program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load for the fall 2020 semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program.” To do so, universities on a hybrid model will be required to issue a new Form I-20 for each of these students—in some cases, numbering in the thousands per university—by August 4, 2020.”


International students, many of whom pay full tuition, are a major source of revenue for American universities, and losing them would be a huge blow to the finances of many public and private schools, which are already suffering losses because of the pandemic. According to Mathew Washburn, program officer at the US State Department agency, EducationUSA, international students on US campuses make a significant financial impact on the United States, with an estimated contribution of over $42.4 billion to the US economy through tuition, room and board, and other expenses, and supporting over 500,000 US jobs. Figures from the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs show that the 16,039 Nigerian students currently studying in the US ranked first among African countries with an estimated contribution of $514 million to the US economy in 2019; behind China ($14.9 billion) and India ($8.1 billion). Washburn cited studies showing that 33,236 international students contributed $1.2 billion to Michigan’s economy in 2018.


Harvard and MIT said some 9,000 foreign students enrolled on their campuses could be denied visas under the new Trump administration policy. University leaders and immigrant advocates called the new policy cruel and reckless, with several education groups saying they planned to join the legal battle. The Massachusetts attorney general vowed to support Harvard and MIT’s efforts to block the new policy. “Massachusetts is home to thousands of international students who should not fear deportation or be forced to put their health and safety at risk in order to advance their education,” Massachusetts attorney general, Maura Healey, said in a statement yesterday, adding: “This decision from ICE is cruel, it’s illegal, and we will sue to stop it.”


Rachel Canty of the ICE Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) also told Huhuonline.com that as at March 2019; there were 16,039 Nigerian students studying in the United States with 54% male and 46 % female. This number represented an increase of 3,342 students from the over 12,693 students recorded in November 2018. Canty said Nigerian students are enrolled in about 800 institutions across America’s 50 states. The most popular state is Texas, with 2,713 students, while the most popular college/university is Houston Community College, with 220 students. According to Canty, the top five states for Nigerian students in US are: Texas (2,713), California (856), Maryland - DC Metro (827), New York, (818) and Florida (753). Canty said undergraduate students constituted 34%, Masters (36%), Doctorate (12%), Associate degrees (12%), while other non-degree programs constitute 5%.


Harvard and MIT argue that the new Trump administration policy was politically motivated and would throw higher education into chaos. A source close to the President and Fellows of Harvard College told Huhuonline.com that the new policy was an effort by the White House to pressure colleges and universities into reopening and abandoning the cautious approaches that many have adopted to reduce coronavirus transmission. Harvard’s president, Lawrence S. Bacow, called the Trump administration’s action reckless and said in a statement that it appeared to have been designed to pressure universities to hold in-person classes “without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors and others.”


The political intent cannot be clearer,” said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, which includes the leaders of about 450 public and private universities, said in a statement. “They want to force campuses into the position they have to declare themselves open, or at least in a hybrid model.” The American Council on Education, an industry group, said it planned to file a brief in support of the lawsuit, and some 25 institutions of higher learning including the American Association of Community Colleges, the Association of American Universities and the Association of Land Grant Universities, were expected to join the lawsuit.


ICE said it would not comment on pending litigation. Ken Cuccinelli II, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), defended the new policy in an interview on CNN, saying DHS was providing more flexibility for international students than in the past, when in order to qualify for a visa, they could take no more than one of their courses online. Now they can take more, as long as at least some of their instruction is in person. “If they’re not going to be a student or they’re going to be 100 percent online; then they don’t have a basis to be here,” Mr. Cuccinelli said, adding, “They should go home, and then they can return when the school opens.”


The Harvard and M.I.T. suit says that the government recognized that the pandemic posed a unique crisis on March 13, when it suspended a rule that students in the country on F-1 student visas had to attend most classes in person. “The government made clear that this arrangement was in effect for the duration of the emergency,” the lawsuit says.


In reversing that earlier guidance on Monday, the universities say, the government has put the ability of international students to continue studying and working in the U.S. in jeopardy, and it has disrupted the careful planning process that many universities have used to restart higher education in the fall, after shutting down campuses in mid-March. “The effect and perhaps even the goal is to create as much chaos for universities and international students as possible,” Harvard/MIT said in the lawsuit. The leaders of many universities, including Vanderbilt and Cornell have issued statements supporting their foreign students and criticizing the Trump administration’s new policy directive.