The South Asian Times

20 November 2019 23:18 PM

Will America remain a beacon for international students?

By Doug Rand

The Trump administration just quietly made a sweeping change to the U.S. immigration system, likely making it harder for many foreign students and exchange visitors to obtain new visas in the future. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) publicly announced the change on May 11, 2018, in a memo scheduled to take effect on August 9, 2018.

First, some background is in order. If someone “overstays” past the expiration of their visa without obtaining an extension or some new immigration status, they begin to accrue “unlawful presence” in the United States. More than 180 days of unlawful presence will bar that individual from re-entering the United States for three years; after 365 days, the bar rises to 10 years.

Unlike H-1B workers, most students (on F and M visas) and exchange visitors (on J visas) don’t have a hard deadline stamped in their passports—they’re in the United States for the “duration of status,” which can vary based on the length of their academic program and other factors. That’s why, under longstanding policy, these students and exchange visitors don’t start accruing unlawful presence until the government officially determines that they’re in violation of their immigration status.

The new policy, however, would start the clock on “unlawful presence” retroactively, based on any past violation, such as unauthorized work. In many cases, the student or exchange visitor may not realize they have triggered a re-entry bar until long after the fact, when they attempt to apply for a new visa.

For example, here’s a scenario that could easily ensnare one of the many Indian students currently studying in the United States (articulated in greater detail by the American Immigration Council): Imagine a student on an F-1 visa who’s authorized to work on campus half-time. One week during her junior year, she inadvertently works three extra hours. A little over a year later, she and a U.S. employer file the paperwork for an H-1B visa, and USCIS flags this technical violation for the first time. Under current policy, the “unlawful presence” clock would start at that moment, giving the student a reasonable amount of time to leave the country, get her H-1B visa abroad, and return to the United States. But under the new policy, her unlawful presence would be stretched back to begin in her junior year, barring her from returning to the United States for ten years.

By the government’s own estimate, this change could affect some 1.5 million people each year, including nearly 100,000 Indian nationals.

But that’s not the only source of uncertainty facing international students—the Trump administration has also declared its intention to curtail “Optional Practical Training” (OPT) — essentially on-the-job training for foreign graduates of U.S. universities. The George W. Bush administration created an extra extension of OPT for graduates with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees, and the Obama administration made some additional changes, so that now STEM majors can qualify for a total of up to three years of on-the-job training after graduating, and more than 33,000 such graduates participated last year. (Full disclosure: I helped to implement this policy while working in the Obama White House.)

Throwing up new roadblocks like these could ultimately unseat America as the top destination for higher education. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we attract nearly one quarter of all students who choose to study in a foreign country. That was well over 1 million international students last year—including 186,000 from India—who pumped $39.4 billion into the U.S. economy.

But new enrollment by international students fell by over 3 percent in 2016—the first reduction in at least a decade. And that downward trend may have more than doubled last year.

I know first-hand how complicated and intimidating the U.S. immigration system can be. My own startup helps married couples affordably navigate the spousal green card application process, and many of these couples never would have met without America’s embrace of international students. There are surely better ways for the government to deter the relatively small percentage of students (less than 3%) who deliberately and unambiguously overstay their visas to remain in the United States, without creating major uncertainty for the vast majority who are trying to play by the rules.

For generations, America has been the top destination for students from around the world, many of whom go on to contribute their talents to our economy and become Americans themselves. We should be welcoming the best and brightest—to do otherwise is to risk losing an extraordinary competitive advantage.

Doug Rand is co-founder and President of Boundless, a technology company that helps families affordably navigate the immigration system. He is a former assistant director for entrepreneurship at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Update: 24 May, 2018