MIT graduate students, Barnhart, and Waitz file declarations in lawsuit against DHS and ICE

Students and administrators cite health concerns, internet connectivity issues, and financial loss as difficulties presented to international students by new guidelines

Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88, Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz, and four international MIT graduate students filed declarations in the Harvard-MIT lawsuit against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The hearing on a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against ICE will be held July 14 at 3 p.m. EDT.

The ICE regulations announced July 6 do not allow international students with F-1 student visas to remain in the U.S if they are taking a fully-online course load. 

Barnhart filed her declaration July 8.

Barnhart wrote that MIT has 3,873 students holding F-1 visas and 459 newly admitted students who have not started their F-1 visa status. 

If the ICE directive takes place, “MIT students with F-1 student visas who are enrolled in remote programs will face immigration consequences if they do not leave the country within 15 days of the start of the Fall 2020 term.” MIT students “enrolled in programs that are a hybrid of remote and in-person learning” but remain outside the U.S. “will not be permitted to participate in their coursework remotely and also maintain their F-1 visa status,” Barnhart wrote.

Barnhart wrote that due to the timing of MIT’s decision-making about the fall semester, “MIT will not be able to significantly change its plans and procedures or to alter the structure of its remote learning programs.”

Barnhart wrote that MIT’s international students “bring enormous value to the intellectual community in the form of diverse perspectives and varied research interests.” Thus, “MIT is faced with an impossible choice of either losing students who bring immense benefits to the school in order to follow its current, well-considered plan, or taking steps to retain international students that contradict its reasoned public health judgments in response to the pandemic.”

Furthermore, the directive creates an “enormous administrative hurdle” by requiring MIT to update all F-1 records and issue a new Form I-20 to all F-1 visa students by Aug. 4, Barnhart wrote.

Barnhart wrote that it will be financially difficult for international students to arrange flights and find housing in their home countries, especially given flight restrictions. International students living in MIT’s on-campus emergency housing would have to leave the “housing that was set up specifically to ensure their ability to continue their studies.” Additionally, students with disabilities may be unable to find housing accommodations in their home countries. 

Students with families may face challenges in enrolling their children in “daycares and schools outside of the country,” and significant others of F-1 students “will need to make alternate arrangements,” Barnhart wrote. 

Barnhart wrote that LGBTQ+ students may “face risk of arrest or other persecution in their home countries.” Some students’ home countries also have ongoing “civil unrest and violence.”

Barnhart wrote that some F-1 students may be unable to continue their research remotely “because coordinating research collaboration and accessing necessary resources will not be possible in their home countries.”

Additionally, the directive will prevent many students from pursuing employment, internship, or research opportunities through Optional Practical Training (OPT) or STEM OPT, Barnhart wrote. More generally, “many students will face a difficult and uncertain path to returning” to the U.S. even after MIT reopens fully in-person due to difficulties in arranging visa appointments.

International graduate students with teaching assistantships at MIT may also face “time zone difficulties,” “internet connectivity issues,” and internet firewalls in their home countries.

Barnhart wrote that many F-1 students will return to home countries or communities with “greater numbers of daily COVID-19 cases than Massachusetts or Cambridge.”

Barnhart concluded, “It would not be feasible for MIT to safely implement Institute-wide in-person learning for the Fall 2020 semester,” especially “in light of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19.”

Waitz filed his declaration July 13.

Waitz wrote that as leader of the Office of Undergraduate and Graduate Education, his office is the “primary educational point of contact for MIT’s undergraduate and graduate student government and other key student organizations” and is responsible for overseeing the International Students Office (ISO).

President L. Rafael Reif had tasked Waitz to lead Team 2020, the group responsible for determining MIT’s response for the fall term, including “investigating the steps that MIT should take to reasonably manage the health and safety risks in reopening and scaling back operations under various scenarios,” Waitz wrote.

Waitz added that in making MIT’s fall decision, Team 2020 garnered feedback from “experts across many fields”; “leaders at schools, departments, and groups across the Institute”; and “students and other community members.” 

MIT arrived at its fall decision “based on its understanding of the safety and public risks and its pedagogical judgments,” Waitz wrote. MIT “intentionally” waited “as long as we could” before announcing a fall decision to better understand “current expert, safety, and health data and needs of our students.”

Additionally, Waitz wrote that the plan was devised “to minimize the risk of needing to shut down the campus again,” having learned from MIT’s COVID-19 response March that “that shutting down a campus and transitioning from in-person to remote learning is much more difficult than instituting remote learning at the outset” and gradually increasing in-person instruction “as health conditions allow.”

Waitz wrote that many of MIT’s key academic deadlines are “fast approaching.” Given “the academic, housing, and other planning that has gone into preparing for the fall semester, and the short time between now and the beginning of the semester, it would be very difficult” to “create a new approach for offering housing to additional students” while providing a “high-quality education” and prioritizing health and safety.

Waitz wrote that since the July 6 ICE directive, “ISO has fielded hundreds of calls and emails from students” with concerns over their visa status, the state of their home country, class participation, financial loss, or “deferral or foregoing their academic programs.” Administrators, faculty, and staff “have also received hundreds” of concerned student emails.

The students filed their declarations July 13. Each student holds an F-1 visa and did not reveal their names due to fears that they “could face retaliation from immigration authorities or harm” in their home countries or elsewhere.

A Hungarian doctoral student wrote in their declaration that it would “not be possible” for them to return to live with family in Hungary because they are estranged from their parents and because their siblings lack the financial resources to accommodate them. 

The student is a lesbian and would be required “to suppress core aspects” of their identity to remain safe in Hungary’s homophobic environment. The student only has health insurance in the U.S. and would lose access to critical mental health services, in addition to being separated from their support network and a financial loss from a signed lease.

A South African doctoral student who departed the U.S. March 2020 “to help keep myself and my community safe” wrote in their declaration that their research would be hindered due to frequent “load-shedding” electricity shutdowns in their home country and the six-hour time difference. Additionally, the student is a resident assistant in a MIT graduate residence and would not be able to fulfill their duties from South Africa.

The student also described an incident “this past week” where “seven armed men invaded” their home and robbed their family at gunpoint, resulting in the student experiencing “severe panic and anxiety.” The student wrote that they are “desperate to return” to the U.S., so that they can continue their studies “without fear of such armed assault.”

A doctoral student from Lebanon wrote in their declaration that they are working on a project with MIT and NASA, related to their graduate thesis. The student also has “several courses” remaining in their graduate studies. Due to the economic crisis, famine, and lack of reliable internet and electricity in Lebanon, the student would not be able to work on their graduate studies or on the project which “NASA is counting on.”

A Brazilian doctoral student wrote in their declaration about similar concerns over being unable to complete the courses and research necessary to receive their doctoral degree. They cited weak internet connection in their hometown, the severe consequences of high-risk family members possibly contracting COVID-19, separation from their partner, and a financial loss of over $14,000 in rent.

Four Harvard students — an undergraduate varsity athlete, a Harvard Law School student, a Harvard Medical School student, and a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences — also filed declarations. The undergraduate student had been denied entry to the U.S. July 8 at an airport in Belarus.

MIT announced July 7 that for undergraduates, the fall semester would be mostly remote, with some in-person classes offered to undergraduates living on campus. Only seniors were invited back on campus. Non-seniors can request to live on campus through a review process, which will consider criteria such as home situations that “would be unsafe given the circumstances of their country or home life.”

Graduate students had been invited since May to return to campus for MIT’s research ramp-up. MIT’s FAQ on fall decisions wrote that graduate instruction would vary by school and program.

ICE’s previous March 13 guidance, issued in conjunction with President Donald J. Trump’s declaration of a national emergency due to COVID-19, permitted students with F-1 visas to participate in online classes in the U.S. while retaining their visa status. 

ICE noted that the guidance was a temporary provision “in effect for the duration of the emergency,” that it was subject to change, and that the Student and Exchange Visitor Program would monitor the situation and “adjust its guidance as needed.”