A group of 30 United States Senators and 136 Congressmen urged President Donald Trump on Thursday to reverse an order that bars international students from staying in the country if they do not have in-person classes to attend next semester, PTI reported. They said the policy was “cruel, senseless, and is a xenophobic attempt to use non-citizens as political pawns”.

On Monday, the United States had said it would not allow foreign students to remain in the country for the autumn semester if all their university classes are moved online because of the coronavirus crisis. It added that foreign students who fail to switch to in-person courses could face “immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings”. The rule applies to all F-1 and M-1 visa holders. While F-1 visa holders pursue academic courses, M-1 students pursue “vocational coursework”.

However, the US State Department on Tuesday, made some modifications to the F-1 and M-1 visas to allow greater flexibility for non-immigrant students to continue their education in the United States, while also maintaining physical distancing requirements.

In separate letters to Acting Secretary, Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf and Acting Secretary, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Matthew Albence, the lawmakers called the decision “cruel and unconscionable”. “These students are already in the United States, are established members of educational communities, and have been determined through the visa screening process to pose no danger to the United States,” they said.

The US lawmakers expressed concern that the decision was motivated not by public health considerations, but rather by “animus towards non-citizens, immigrants”. They called it a “flagrant attempt to hold international students hostage in order to force schools to reopen even as Covid-19 cases are rising.

“We call out this policy for what it is: a cruel, senseless, and xenophobic attempt to use non-citizens as political pawns in order to financially coerce colleges and universities to reopen campuses this fall, despite what is best for public health,” the lawmakers added. “This policy is dangerous to the health and well-being of numerous communities.”

Follow today’s live updates on the pandemic here.

Also read:

‘How does this help anyone?’: Indian students in US fear deportation following Trump’s new rules

Signatories of the letter included Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Robert Menendez.

The letter further highlighted the practical challenges of remote learning. “Students who must move a continent away or to the other side of the world will have to participate in online classes in time zones hours apart from where they are located, which could have detrimental effects on their education, health, and livelihood,” it added. “Other students may return to regions where internet connectivity needed to participate in online classes is inadequate, leaving them unable to receive the full value of the education they are paying for.”

For some students, being forced to leave the country may lead them to leave the school permanently and fail to receive a degree into which they have put so much time, effort, and tuition dollars, the lawmakers added. The loss of international students, they said, only serves to isolate them at a time when they need the support of their faculty and classmates.

The ban on international students will also deprive universities of needed revenue at a time of great financial stress, the US lawmakers said. “Moreover, forcing students to leave in short order will place financial burdens on them,” they added. “Many have housing or automobile leases that they cannot break, or other financial obligations in the United States.”

The letter by the US House of Representatives is co-led by Congresswoman Linda Sanchez; Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Davis; House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler; and Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren.

It is supported by the University of California; Advancing Justice; South Asian Americans Leading Together; Central American Resource Center; Empowering Pacific Islander Communities; National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, and Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, among many other groups.