Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson


Washington state international students spend approximately $1 billion annually in tuition and day-to-day spending

*  This release has been updated with the filing of the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, and includes a link to the complaint.

SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit today in federal court in Seattle challenging the Trump Administration’s proposed visa rule for international students. Approximately 27,000 international students attend higher education institutions in Washington state and spend approximately $1 billion in state each year.

The rule goes into effect on July 15. It requires every college and university to decide whether they will hold classes in-person, remotely or implement a hybrid model with both in-person and remote classes. The rule revokes the student visas for all international students attending colleges and universities holding classes remotely. Visa holders attending colleges and universities implementing a hybrid model are prohibited from attending remotely from their home countries – despite the public health risks of unnecessary travel.   

On July 7, Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli said the purpose of his agency’s directive is to “encourage schools to reopen.”

The rule harms nearly every Washington state higher education institution, reduces state revenues and threatens public health and safety. Many Washington state colleges and universities are providing declarations outlining the many harms of the rule, including:

  • Potentially jeopardizes the health and safety of all university communities and surrounding areas in the state;
  • At a time when the state can least afford it, the new rule jeopardizes significant tuition revenue from the approximately 27,000 international students who attend college and university in Washington state;
  • The new rule arbitrarily forces Washington colleges and universities to rush their decision-making process regarding in-person classes;
  • The new rule threatens the expulsion of valuable COVID-19 vaccine and virus researchers, many of whom are F-1 visa holders working in the state.

Ferguson filed the lawsuit today in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington asserting the rule is unlawful and harmful to Washington students, universities and community colleges. Ferguson will file a Temporary Restraining Order early next week that will seek an immediate halt to the Trump Administration directive’s implementation.

“The Trump Administration is undermining public safety decisions made at the local level and jeopardizing more than a billion dollars in tuition revenue and economic activity in order to pursue a political goal of keeping schools open in the fall,” Ferguson said. “President Trump and ICE need to let colleges and universities make their own decisions about the health, safety, and education of their students, not arbitrarily and illegally punish schools that want to provide classes remotely.”

"The Trump administration's actions will unnecessarily punish international students in our state's higher education institutions," Gov. Jay Inslee said. "This just another way the federal government is demonstrating animosity toward immigrants and that is not acceptable in Washington state. I thank Attorney General Ferguson for taking action and I fully support this lawsuit."

The Trump Administration issued the directive on July 6. It arbitrarily reverses policies the administration created in March that allowed international students to remain in Washington on their current visas or apply for new ones.

DHS’ guidance in March enabled students to “participate in online or other alternate learning procedures and remain in active status” to keep their visas. The guidance indicated that students would be able to continue remote participation without losing their visa status for the duration of the national COVID-19 emergency. However, the pandemic is not over and both Washington and the U.S. remain in a state of emergency. Ferguson asserts dangers are increasing daily as COVID-19 cases have recently begun spiking in several areas of the state.

The ICE directive gives no indication the agency ever considered the health of students, faculty, university staff or communities near colleges and universities when it made the rule. ICE gave schools until July 15 — nine days from the issuance — to meet its new requirements.

Ferguson asserts that ICE’s rule violates the Administrative Procedure Act in multiple ways. Many of the Attorney General’s Office’s 29 legal victories against the Trump Administration have come by pointing out the administration’s failure to follow the Administrative Procedure Act. Ferguson asserts the rule violates the Act’s “notice-and-comment” requirements because ICE issued the directive without warning and establishes requirements that must be met within a matter of days, giving the public no opportunity to comment on the new policy beforehand.

Moreover, Ferguson asserts the rule violates the Act’s prohibition on “arbitrary and capricious” actions. Among other reasons, Ferguson asserts the directive is arbitrary because many students will be forced to leave the country in an ad hoc manner that forces them to travel during a global pandemic and does not consider whether they can safely return to countries that may not admit them back. It also requires many other students to return to this country for in-person learning regardless of whether such travel is feasible or safe.

According to the Institute of International Education, Washington ranks 11th in the nation for the number of international students who study here. For the 2018–2019 academic year, there were 27,472 international students at Washington’s higher education schools. International students pay full tuition and many Washington colleges and universities rely on their tuition for financial viability. Washington state international students spent an estimated $956 million in tuition and day-to-day spending last year. International students held over 8,000 jobs. Several community colleges in Washington serve especially large numbers of international students and rely heavily on their tuition payments.

Universities in “chaos”

The ICE policy change has thrown educational institutions’ planning for fall 2020 into chaos. Ferguson asserts the Trump administration has put these institutions in a difficult dilemma: lose numerous F-1 visa students who bring immense educational and financial benefits to the school or take steps to retain those students through in-person classes but place the broader student body and faculty at risk for exposure. Schools must make this choice by an arbitrarily early deadline of July 15 amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to spread and creates new challenges every day.

ICE’s decision reflects an effort by the federal government to coerce state universities and colleges into reopening in-person classes, which also requires housing students in densely packed residential halls. The ICE policy does not allow for universities to judge whether it is safe or educationally advisable to do so. It effectively forces school reopenings when neither the students nor the faculty have sufficient time to react to or address the additional risks to the health and safety of their communities and when it is entirely unclear whether such openings will be safe by the time colleges and universities resume this fall.

The Trump Administration has acknowledged ICE’s decision is designed to force institutions of higher education to conduct in-person classes despite public health experts’ warnings it is dangerous. The Trump Administration’s rule undermines local health and safety decisions without consideration of local conditions.

COVID-19 remains a state emergency

On Jan. 21, the Washington State Department of Health confirmed what was believed to be the first case of COVID-19 in the United States in Washington.

Since the onset of the pandemic, there have been over 37,000 confirmed cases in Washington, over 4,500 hospitalizations and over 1,300 deaths. Washington’s current guidance provides that it is safest for all Washington residents to stay home as much as possible and maintain social distancing in public. It reflects a particular concern with indoor gatherings.

States that have relaxed physical distancing measures, including by allowing indoor gatherings and the opening of locations where individuals congregate are now seeing renewed surges and record-setting numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Lawsuits against the Trump Administration

With today’s filing, Ferguson has filed 65 lawsuits against the Trump Administration. 35 of these cases are awaiting a judicial ruling. Ferguson has 29 legal victories against the Trump Administration. There has been one adverse decision on the merits and Ferguson is appealing that decision. Nineteen of those cases are finished and cannot be appealed.


The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.


Brionna Aho, Communications Director, Attorney General’s Office (360) 753-2727; brionna.aho@atg.wa.gov