Nearly 100 members of Congress are demanding the Trump administration stop a policy that would strip international students of their visas if their coursework is entirely online when classes resume in the fall, according to a letter shared exclusively with NBC News on Thursday.
Led by Massachusetts Democrats Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, lawmakers sent the letter, which calls the proposed policy “irrational and xenophobic,” to the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“This new policy would effectively punish international students at colleges, universities, and other institutions that have decided to move their courses online in order to protect their communities from COVID-19,” the letter said.
“The proposed policy throws the lives of hundreds of thousands of students, and the operations of hundreds of colleges and universities, into uncertainty just weeks before the start of the fall term, to the detriment of the United States and its institutions of higher education,” the letter said.
The 99 members of Congress said they were concerned ICE’s policy was not motivated by public health considerations, but rather by “animus toward immigrants, by a goal of forcing schools to reopen even as COVID-19 cases are rising, and by a desire to create an illusion of normalcy during this unprecedented public health emergency."
"ICE's proposed policy demonstrates a callous disregard for the harm this policy inflicts on international students, and is contrary to public health guidance from authorities within the Administration,” the letter said. “We urge you to withdraw this proposed policy immediately.”
The letter went on to say international students contribute enormously to the country by bringing diverse perspectives and experiences to their communities.
The members of Congress added the “sudden removal of international students would weaken the country economically precisely when our fragile economy cannot afford another self-inflicted blow, and would undermine higher education as one of our most significant and valuable exports.”
They also requested a staff briefing to discuss the administration’s rationale for the policy by July 16.
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said it is unable to provide further comment due to pending litigation.
The government announced Monday that international students will not be allowed to stay in the country if the institution in which they're enrolled is holding online-only courses this fall, and those not attending classes in person would risk deportation.
Students on F-1 and M-1 visas who face such a situation "must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status," the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said in a news release.
Those who violate the rules "may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings," the agency said.
On Wednesday, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced they were suing the Trump administration over the policy.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Boston against the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, seeks a temporary restraining order against the policy. The lawsuit also seeks an order vacating the policy and a declaration that it is unlawful.
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy Homeland Security secretary, defended the policy during an interview with CNN on Tuesday.
"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," he said. “They should go home, and then they can return when the school opens."