On February 6, 2020, in Guilford College et al. v. McAleenan, a federal district court issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the Trump Administration from implementing its new policy regarding unlawful presence for F-1 students, J-1 exchange visitors and M-1 students.

Up until the recent change in policy by the Trump administration, for more than two decades, F-1 students, J-1 exchange visitors and M-1 students who entered the U.S. were allowed to remain in the U.S. for “duration of status” or for however long their educational program or exchange program, along with any extensions, or OPT, lasted. Thus, when they entered the U.S., CBP (formerly INS) did not give them a specific date by which to depart the U.S.

If an F, J or M visa-holder fell out of status or violated the terms of their stay, they would start accumulating unlawful presence from the date after either a US government official or an immigration judge determined they were out of status. Here the concepts get a little difficult, as there is a distinction between being out of status and accumulating unlawful presence, the details of which we will not go into now.

The Court found that any minor violation, such as working one more hour per week than the hours authorized, or moving to a new dorm without filing a change of address, could result in drastic consequences of the student being subject to a three- or ten-year bar.

If a foreign national accumulates more than 180 days of unlawful presence and departs the U.S., he or she will be subject to a three-year bar to returning. If a foreign national accumulates one year or more of unlawful presence and departs, then he or she is subject to a ten-year bar to returning to the U.S. So, the consequences are very severe.

For decades, foreign students and exchange visitors would only accumulate unlawful presence after a determination by USCIS, ICE, CBP or the Immigration Judge. The foreign students and exchange visitors were put on notice when they started accumulating unlawful presence, and would have the opportunity to depart the U.S. before the three or ten year bar kicked in.

However, the Trump Administration abruptly changed this decades-long policy in August 2018. According to the new policy, USCIS would start the unlawful presence clock on the original date of the status violation, not on the date that a USCIS officer made the determination that the person was out of status. So, a USCIS officer reviewing the file would back-date the accumulation of unlawful presence to the date that he or she believed the foreign student or exchange visitor first fell out of status.

The Court found that the plaintiffs had standing to bring the lawsuit, as they had shown an injury traceable to the government’s unlawful conduct in issuing the August 2018 policy. The Court used the examples of two of the plaintiffs, Ye and Li, who entered the U.S. as students, and who both enlisted in the U.S. Army and are awaiting basic training. They had been recruited by the U.S. Army due to their valuable language skills, and the Army had advised them not to leave the U.S. while they were awaiting basic training. Should a government official go and make a retroactive determination that they have been out of status while they wait for basic training, they would be subject to the three or ten year bars, and all their dreams of joining the Army would be dashed. Because the Court held that at least two of the plaintiffs had standing, it did not need to adjudicate whether the rest of the plaintiffs had standing.

The Court held that 1) the August 2018 USCIS Policy Memorandum was a legislative rule and invalid for failing to follow the APA (Administrative Procedure Act)’s notice and comment procedures, and 2) the August 2019 USCIS Policy Memo conflicts with the INA (the Immigration and Nationality Act), and must be vacated.

The District Court found that the August 2018 policy memo was a legislative rule under the APA. It changed prior policy, was inserted into the USCIS Adjudicator’s Field Manual, and was binding on USCIS officers. So, USCIS should have published the new policy rule in the Federal Register, and given the public notice and an opportunity to comment. Under the APA, the government is also required to provide a reasoned response to any comments. Simply issuing a memo and a press release did not comply with the law.

The Court also held that the new policy conflicts with the immigration statute. Congress first included the concept of unlawful presence (which differs from being out of status) in IIRIRA (the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act) n 1996. The Court found that the Trump Administration had improperly joined the two concepts of unlawful presence and status violations together, which conflicted with the meaning of the statute. Based on the statute, unlawful presence does not accrue until an adjudicator determines the person is out of status.

The Court granted a permanent injunction ordering that the Trump Administration return to the prior policy regarding unlawful presence for F, J and M visa holders. Where the government fails to comply with APA requirements in implementing new rules, a nationwide injunction is appropriate. The new Trump policy was vacated as unlawful applied to anyone who would be subject to it, not just the plaintiffs. Thus, the injunction is nationwide.

This means that USCIS and the Trump Administration must continue to follow prior policy on unlawful presence for F-1, J-1, and M-1 visa holders. The injunction applies throughout the United States. A great win for foreign students, exchange visitors, and universities!

NB – citation is Guilford College et al. v. McAleenan, 1:18CV891-LCB-JEP (2/6/2020 Dt Ct Middle Dt. North Carolina).

Copyright © 2020 Heidi J Meyers all rights reserved.