A group of 136 U.S. Democratic congressmen and 30 senators, including Indian-origin Kamala Harris, has urged the Trump administration to reverse its “cruel” order that bars international students from staying in the country if they do not have in-person classes to attend.

The lawmakers, in separate letters to Acting Secretary, Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf and Acting Secretary, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Matthew Albence on July 9, expressed concern over the ICE’s recently announced modifications to the Student Exchange and Visitor Program (SEVP).

The new guidelines have created panic among international students, a majority of whom come from China and India.

Also read | Harvard, MIT sue U.S. immigration authorities over new rule for foreign students: report

In its July 6 order, the ICE declared that non-immigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online or taking only online courses will not be permitted to take a full course load and remain in the United States.

The modifications also limited many students at normally operating schools from taking more than one class or three credit hours online in order to remain in the country.

‘Not motivated by public health considerations’

The letter, signed by senators Robert Menendez, Cory Booker and Harris, the Indian-origin senator from California among others, expressed concern that the ICE’s guidance was motivated not by the public health considerations, but by animus towards non-citizens and immigrants.

It said that the move was a flagrant attempt to hold international students hostage in order to force schools to reopen even as COVID-19 cases were rising.

“The ICE’s announcement of their plans to force out or deport international students who remain at U.S. colleges and universities and who are taking a full online course load is cruel and unconscionable. These students are already in the United States, are established members of educational communities, and have been determined through the visa screening process to pose no danger to the United States,” the senators wrote.

In the 2018-19 academic year, there were over a million international students in the U.S.

We call out this policy for what it is: a cruel, senseless, and xenophobic attempt to use non-citizens as political pawns in order to financially coerce colleges and universities to reopen campuses this fall, despite what is best for public health, they said.

“This policy is dangerous to the health and well-being of numerous communities,” they said.

The House letter is co-led by congresswoman Linda Sanchez, Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Davis, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, and Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren.

Additional burden

Observing that the students and schools are facing unprecedented challenges, the letter said that the ICE’s announcements only add to these burdens, and potentially put more students at risk.

The ICE’s SEVP exemptions for the spring and summer semesters permitting students to take more online courses than usually permitted was sensible given the risks of the pandemic. The administration should consider the wisdom of these earlier exemptions and cease the finalisation of their modifications. These modifications have also not thought out the practical challenges of remote learning for international students, said the letter.

Students who must move a continent away or to the other side of the world will have to participate in online classes in time zones hours apart from where they are located, which could have detrimental effects on their education, health and livelihood.

Other students may return to regions where internet connectivity needed to participate in online classes is inadequate, leaving them unable to receive the full value of the education they are paying for, the lawmakers said.

For some students, being forced to leave the country may lead them to leave the school permanently and fail to receive a degree into which they have put so much time, effort, and tuition dollars, they continued. This will also deprive universities of needed revenue at a time of great financial stress, straining resources for the students who remain at schools and make it harder for those with financial challenges to meet.

Moreover, forcing students to leave in short order will place financial burdens on them. Many have housing or automobile leases that they cannot break, or other financial obligations in the United States, the Congressmen wrote.

The loss of international students, according to the letter, only serves to isolate them at a time when they need the support of their faculty and classmates.

This policy sends a message to international students that they are not welcome in the U.S. and disregards their well-being and the well-being of student bodies.

These modifications will only further disincentivise international students from coming to the U.S. where they enrich campus life and our society through their talents and contributions, they said.

The letter is supported by the University of California, Advancing Justice, South Asian Americans Leading Together, Central American Resource Center, Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, National Council of Asian Pacific Americans and Sikh American Legal Defence and Education Fund, among others.

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