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Johns Hopkins University sues Trump administration over rule requiring foreign students to take in-person classes

Johns Hopkins University filed a lawsuit Friday against the federal government over a Trump administration rule that jeopardizes international students’ ability to stay in the country if their courses aren’t taken in-person during the coronavirus pandemic.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, calls for a restraining order against a new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy.

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The rule at issue, announced Monday, states that international students in the United States cannot take a fully online course load during the upcoming fall semester.

Hopkins’ suit argues that the ICE decision “completely upended” the university’s reopening plans for the fall. The suit claims the policy was an attempt “to force universities to re-open in-person classes,” as most were considering limiting them to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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The Baltimore university is among the majority of Maryland institutions planning “hybrid” semesters including a mix of in-person and online instruction.

But Hopkins’ nearly 5,000 international students will be affected all the same. The ICE rule states that students at so-called “hybrid” schools must show they are taking the lowest number of online courses possible.

Roham Razaghi is a fourth year PhD student at Johns Hopkins University. He is from Iran and concerned about the future of international students here in the U.S

Hopkins said the policy was an attempt “to force universities to re-open in-person classes,” as most were considering limiting them to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The rule places Hopkins in the “untenable dilemma” of either moving forward with its reopening plans or attempting to hold in-person courses in each of its individual schools throughout the semester to save its international students, Friday’s filing states. For example, the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health didn’t want to offer in-person coursework.

“The adverse consequences of this sudden displacement are devastating financially and personally,” Hopkins’ complaint reads.

Hopkins also has announced that it plans to move classes to an online-only format after its Thanksgiving break, meaning its international students could be sent home.

The suit, which lists ICE, the Department of Homeland Security and each of the agencies’ directors as defendants, also alleges that the new ICE rule was unlawfully introduced, particularly since the agency stated in March that international students could take online courses as necessary “for the duration of the emergency” caused by the coronavirus. President Donald Trump has yet to lift the emergency declaration resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rule is “unconstitutionally vague,” Hopkins’ complaint stated, as well as “arbitrary and capricious.”

The suit highlights Hopkins’ preeminent role in COVID-19 research, stating “experts at Johns Hopkins’ own School of Public Health have advised specifically against further re-opening, and have assisted in creating concrete plans regarding the safest approach to proceeding in the fall 2020 semester.”

The federal agencies did not respond to a request for comment late Friday.

Hopkins’ complaint also cited the “financial stress” associated with the new ICE rule. Given that some students may be forced to withdraw or take leaves of absence as a result of the restrictions, Hopkins predicted the loss of tuition revenue could be “disastrous.” Hopkins’ filing also cited the “immense burden” associated with processing new authorizations for its thousands of international students as a result of the rule.

In a statement released to the university community Friday, Hopkins President Ron Daniels condemned the ICE policy as he discussed the lawsuit.

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“Under the federal government’s new rule, our students are being forced to choose between preserving their own health and well-being and pursuing their educational aims,” Daniels wrote.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, two universities that do not plan to offer any in-person instruction this fall, filed a separate suit against the federal government earlier this week, garnering supporting briefs from numerous other universities.

“Our case presents issues not addressed in the other litigation and could help increase the likelihood of a national ban on enforcing this new rule,“ Daniels wrote in his statement, adding that arguments regarding Hopkins’ request for a preliminary injunction are likely to begin as soon as next week.

In addition, Maryland likely will join a Massachusetts suit against the law next week, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh told The Baltimore Sun Friday.

“We have a story to tell that’s different from Harvard and different from MIT, and it’s the story of our public schools in Maryland,” Frosh said. ”This rule may cost the universities millions of dollars in lost tuition and accommodations that they may have to make these people who were casually tossed to the wind.”

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