LOS ANGELES - California sued the Trump administration Thursday to challenge a new policy that would deprive foreign students of their U.S. visas if their fall classes are held solely online, while USC offered free in-person classes to help international students avoid being forced out of the country.
The lawsuit by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, along with community and state college chancellors, contends the policy threatens to exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 by requiring 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."
University of California officials have said they plan to seek a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to bar ICE from enforcing the order.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Monday that foreign students cannot remain in the country if they are taking only online courses.
"The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States," according to an ICE statement.
Many universities, including USC and the California State University system, are planning primarily online instruction this fall due to the ongoing pandemic.
USC announced Thursday that international students who need to take an in-person class this fall to maintain their visa status and avoid being deported under the new policy will be able to enroll in the course at no cost.
USC previously announced plans to join an amicus brief supporting a lawsuit filed this week by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology challenging the ICE restriction.
USC President Carol Folt said Wednesday the university is also "actively considering all other legal options" and "working with our congressional delegation and fellow universities on legislative and other solutions to this terribly misguided decision."
The Harvard/MIT lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts, asks the court to prevent ICE and the Department of Homeland Security from enforcing the new guidance and to declare it unlawful.
During the 2019-20 academic year, more than 12,000 international students were enrolled at USC, more than half of them from China, according to the university's website.
University of California Board of Regents Chair John A. Perez said the university's "legacy and leadership would not be the same without the international students and faculty who have come to this institution."
"As part of our effort to respond to COVID-19 and to protect the health of all our students, UC has increased online instruction and decreased in-person classes. Even last-ditch efforts can cause real harm, so it is imperative for UC to file this lawsuit in order to protect our students," he said late Wednesday.
"To UC's international students, I say, `We support you and regret the additional chaos ICE's action has caused.' To the courts, I say, `We are the University of California. UC knows science, UC knows law, and we approach both in good faith. Our opponents have shown you time and again that they do not," Perez said.
Cal State Dominguez Hills President Thomas A. Parham said he was "shocked and saddened" by the situation, adding that the school is working to find "workable solutions that will meet the new criteria for maintaining student visas."
Parham said the new ICE policy "in the midst of a global pandemic" is cruel and insensitive.
In announcing the state lawsuit Thursday, Becerra said international students were being unfairly punished by the police.
"No one graduates more students from college or assembles a more talented and diverse group of future leaders than California," he said. "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."
California State University Chancellor Timothy White said the new immigration guidance 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."
He said the policy "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."