Press Releases

July 10, 2020

International Students in California File Federal Lawsuit to Protect Their Status in the U.S.


For Immediate Release: July 10, 2020

Media Contact: Rekha Radhakrishnan, 832-628-2312, rradhakrishnan@publiccounsel.org

INTERNATIONAL GRADUATE STUDENTS IN CALIFORNIA FILE FEDERAL LAWSUIT TO PROTECT THEIR STATUS IN THE U.S.

Students fighting to continue their education in the middle of a worldwide pandemic

SANTA ANA, CALIFORNIA – July 10, 2020 – After learning on July 6 that their status in the United States as international students was in jeopardy because of a federal order to initiate deportation proceedings against students who take classes exclusively online, seven international graduate students in California are filing a federal lawsuit in the Central District of California today. The students are represented by Public Counsel, Sidley Austin LLP, Evan Caminker, Professor of Law and former dean, University of Michigan*, and Mark Haddad, Lecturer in Law, USC Gould School of Law*.

 “The ICE policy requiring foreign students to attend in person classes, even where their universities have determined that to do so will cost lives and endanger the campus community, in keeping with the judgment of public health experts, treats them as pawns for the president’s politically motivated decision,” said Mark Rosenbaum, Directing Attorney of Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law project. “It is the latest of a series of irrational actions that is deepening the pandemic crisis in our nation and it comes as no surprise that the lives being threatened in the first instance are those of immigrants, here lawfully studying to contribute productively here and abroad.”

Universities across the nation have changed their models of learning based on guidance from public health experts due to the global pandemic, with many shifting to both online and hybrid models of online and in person to discourage bringing people together in a confined space. These changes started in March when stay at home orders in California prevented universities from holding in person classes. At that time international students were protected by guidance issued by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), all of which kept nonimmigrant student visas in compliance regardless of how their institution managed the shift from in person classes. However, as California registers some of its highest new daily cases totals in early July since the pandemic began, SEVP rolled back its exemptions from the spring, requiring students whose institutions choose to conduct the fall 2020 term entirely online to leave the United States.

According to a recent interview with CNN, Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli said, “This is now setting the rules for one semester, which we'll finalize later this month that will, again, encourage schools to reopen,” suggesting this directive was designed to push for reopening despite the clear public health dangers presented.

“In the midst of the worst public health crisis of our lifetime, our government has taken abrupt, arbitrary and illogical action that presents these students with a Hobson's choice of either subjecting themselves and those around them to the risk of infection of Covid-19 by attending classes in person, or being forced from the country in which they have planned and prepared to spend the coming academic year,” said Stacy Horth-Neubert of Sidley Austin LLP.  “We look forward to helping our clients regain the security of knowing that they can complete their studies in the United States while conforming to public health guidelines, even if that means studying online until the current crisis has passed."

The ripple effects and burdens placed on international students as a result of this decision will be enormous and include health risks associated with traveling in the midst of a pandemic, housing and healthcare costs, and educational inequities.

"It's a tough call whether the administration's sudden about-face is more cruel to international students who are studying and conducting important research in American universities; or more counterproductive to the nation's long-term economic and diplomatic interests; or more dismissive of the established legal rules governing executive action," said Evan Caminker, Professor of Law and former dean, University of Michigan.

The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief and an order vacating the policy so that international students can continue their education while maintaining the best practices when it comes to public health.   

“The Administration’s abrupt decision to expel international students during the pandemic is gratuitously cruel to the students and would do immeasurable harm to our universities and our country,” said Mark Haddad, Lecturer in Law, USC Gould School of Law. “Because this stunning policy change inflicts profound harm and yet was issued without any explanation, it is unlawful and should be swiftly blocked by the courts.”

* For identification purposes only.

Read the full complaint here.  

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Public Counsel is the nation’s largest pro bono law firm. Founded in 1970, Public Counsel strives to achieve three main goals: protect the legal rights of disadvantaged children; represent immigrants who have been the victims of torture, persecution, domestic violence, trafficking, and other crimes; and foster economic justice by providing individuals and institutions in underserved communities with access to quality legal representation. Through a pro bono model that leverages the talents and dedication of thousands of attorney and law student volunteers, along with an in-house staff of more than 75 attorneys and social workers, Public Counsel annually assists more than 30,000 families, children, immigrants, veterans, and nonprofit organizations and addresses systemic poverty and civil rights issues through impact litigation and policy advocacy. For more information, visit www.publiccounsel.org

With 1,900 lawyers in 20 offices worldwide, Sidley Austin LLP has built a reputation as a premier legal adviser for global businesses and financial institutions. Sidley’s lawyers and staff devote more than 100,000 hours to pro bono projects annually, and play a vital role in people’s lives throughout the world, including through death penalty appeals, political asylum matters, civil rights litigation and veterans’ benefits appeals. Our annual pro bono reports provide a sample of the pro bono projects that Sidley lawyers have undertaken in recent years. Sidley has for the sixth year in a row received the most first-tier national rankings in the U.S. News – Best Lawyers® “Best Law Firms” survey. On Law360’s list of Global 20 Firms, Sidley was ranked among the top law firms “with the greatest global reach and expertise.” To stay up to date with the latest Sidley news, please follow us on Twitter at @SidleyLaw