Christian groups slam DHS rule threatening deportation of students during COVID-19

Students pray during a bible study hosted by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
Students pray during a bible study hosted by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Montclair State University in New Jersey. | (Photo: InterVarsity)

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has led a broad coalition of Christian organizations in opposing a rule announced by the Trump administration this week that requires international students to exit the U.S. or transfer if their classes are entirely online this fall. 

In a letter sent to Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, the heads of 12 Christian student ministry organizations voiced concern with a temporary final Immigration and Customs Enforcement rule announced Monday. 

The rule requires international students attending colleges and universities that are planning to meet entirely online in the fall semester to leave the country or transfer to another school. 

The organizations called the rule “unnecessary” and one that “lacks compassion.”

“While health and security concerns rightly factor into visa decisions, there are no new health or security reasons to justify this proposed student visa rule,” the ministry heads argue, adding that many of these students arrived in the U.S. even before the pandemic began. “These students were vetted and legally admitted to the United States to continue their studies, many of who have been here for years at college.”

The rule in question states that students attending schools that operate entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States. The State Department will not issue visas to students who enroll with full online course loads nor will such students be permitted to enter the country. 

For students already in the U.S., they must either depart the country or transfer to a school where there will be in-person instruction to maintain their lawful status. Students who do not obey the order may face consequences such as the initiation of removal proceedings.  

The Christian organizations that are signatories to the letter identify themselves as a broad coalition of higher education institutions, churches and other ministries that seek to “welcome, serve, and love international students and scholars.”

“We believe that the proposed student visa rule violates tenets of our faith to ‘not mistreat the foreigner,’ but to love those neighbors as ourselves,” the letter reads, citing Leviticus 19:33-34 and Matthew 22:39. 

“The modification to the temporary exemptions breaks an implicit promise made to these students. The United States issued them student visas, which traditionally allow students to complete their degree programs.”

The students at risk of being forced back to their home countries made “financial and relational sacrifices to come to the United States to study,” the letter notes. Although the groups recognize that student visas are not traditionally given for online-only degree programs, the proposed rule could expose the students to “significant costs and risks.” 

The Christian groups contend that if students try to stay in the U.S. by transferring to another school, they risk disrupting their education and may be forced to move into another community where they could face further financial and relational disruption. 

“While here, they have paid their tuition, secured housing, progressed in their studies, and contributed positively to their campus’s experience. Through no fault of their own, their universities and colleges have moved exclusively to on-line courses this Fall to restrain the spread of COVID-19.”

The letter was spearheaded by Tom Lin, president of InterVarsity, an inter-denominational, evangelical Christian campus ministry with chapters at schools across the nation. 

Lin was joined by Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities; as well as Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. 

Other signatories include leaders of groups such as the country’s largest Christian social fraternity, Beta Epsilon Chi; The Navigators; Bridges International; the National Latino Evangelical Coalition; World Relief; International Friendships; and Bethany Christian Services. 

The Christian group leaders believe that international students should not be expelled from the U.S. just because their schools made changes driven by public health needs. 

The new ICE rule has also drawn pushback from universities and other educational organizations. 

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit in an attempt to halt the rule this week. 

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities also issued a statement condemning the rule as “heartless” on Wednesday. 

“Allowing all students, regardless of country of origin, to be given equal access to online learning is the fair, sensible and moral thing to do,” the association said. “We can keep students safe and keep these young people on track.”

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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