The University of California (UC) on Wednesday (local time) announced new plans to file suit against the federal government for violating the rights of the varsity as well as its students following a new order that requires international students to take classes in person this fall, despite rising coronavirus caseloads that are complicating efforts by colleges and universities to offer in-person learning.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) directed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to bar international students from staying in the country if they attend American universities that offer only online courses during the COVID-19 health crisis.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have already sued the Trump administration over the order on Wednesday.

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The lawsuit represent a swift response to the unexpected order issued this week by the federal government, as universities rush to protect the status of thousands of international students. The lawsuit will seek a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to bar ICE from enforcing an order that UC President Janet Napolitano called “mean-spirited, arbitrary and damaging to America.”

“The University of California’s legacy and leadership would not be the same without the international students and faculty who have come to this institution,” said UC Board of Regents Chair John A. Perez.

“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. 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 added.

The ICE guidelines mandate international students with F-1 and M-1 visas transfer to an institution offering in-person instruction or risk “immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.” An F-1 visa is issued to students who are attending an academic program or English language program. M-1 visas are issued to students taking non-academic or vocational courses, said the University in a statement.

According to 2019 fall enrollment data, 27,205 of UC’s 226,125 undergraduate students are non-resident international while 13,995 of the University’s 58,941 graduate students are non-resident international, it further said. “At a time when college students across America are struggling to deal with the challenges and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic while focusing on their studies, this capricious and illegal order from the federal government plunges them into deeper anxiety and uncertainty,” said Napolitano.

“It is illegal, unnecessary and callous,” Napolitano added. Making it more difficult for international students to study here undermines decades of collaboration between the US and its international partners, particularly in fields that contribute to America’s economic vitality, said the University.

Like most universities in America, UC is offering a mix of online and in-person courses this fall as it grapples with COVID-19 and how to safely provide top-quality education to its students, it further said.

On July 6, ICE announced it was changing temporary exemptions for non-immigrant students taking online classes due to the pandemic. The new policy means that non-resident, international students will be forced to leave the US or transfer to another college if their schools operate entirely online this fall. New visas will not be issued to students at those schools. International students will not be exempt even if an outbreak forces their schools online during the fall term or even if state or local regulations or orders prohibit offering in-person classes

The directive comes at a time when the federal government is putting pressure on universities and K-12 schools to open in the fall despite a sharp rise in new coronavirus infections. The U.S. has seen more than 300,000 new cases since July 1. “The safety of our students and the campus community is our paramount concern and guides what we do,” said Napolitano.

“The idea that the federal government would add to the burden of students and universities working to navigate this global health crisis beggars belief. UC will fight this blatant disregard for the law and public health with all the legal means at our disposal,” he added.

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