The Next Harmful Immigration Move Against International Students


The next Trump administration action taken against high-skilled foreign nationals may be to limit the length of stay for international students after they are admitted to the United States. This would be done through a new rule eliminating “duration of status,” which now allows a student, once admitted to America, to continue his or her studies until completion, without requiring additional approvals.

The vehicle for this new restriction would be a new regulation to establish a “maximum period of authorized stay for students.” The targeted date for publishing the proposed rule is February 2020.

Replacing the current “duration of status” for international students with a “maximum period of authorized stay” would increase uncertainty for students. It would require them to gain new approvals at each stage of their studies in the United States, such as a transition from an undergraduate to a graduate-level program. New approvals also would be needed if academic programs take longer than anticipated.

In interviews, educators estimate extra costs incurred by international students could be $1,500 or more per extension. Moreover, students would face the prospect of USCIS adjudicators denying student extension requests, much like many H-1B visa holders experience today when trying to extend their status and are forced to leave the country. The denial rate was 24% for H-1B petitions for new employment and 12% for continuing employment through the first three quarters of FY 2019, according to a National Foundation for American Policy analysis.

Educators and analysts blame higher costs in the United States and restrictive Trump administration immigration policies for recent declines in international student enrollment. The new policy would raise costs higher for students and be much more restrictive than the status quo.

Given the significant delays in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) processing under its current workload, the agency is unlikely to approve applications in time for many students. At the Texas Service Center, as of February 4, 2020, the processing time was 9 to 11 and a half months for an “Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status (I-539).” That means a student would need to file a year in advance for an extension, which likely would not even be permitted by USCIS.

What happens if a student files a timely application but USCIS fails to approve it in time? The student would be in jeopardy unless he or she leaves the country, according to USCIS.

The agency includes the following on a list of Q&As for an extension of stay: “What if I file for an extension of stay on time but USCIS doesn’t make a decision before my I–94 expires? Your lawful nonimmigrant status ends, and you are out of status, when your Form I-94 expires, even if you have timely applied to extend your nonimmigrant status . . . DHS [Department of Homeland Security] may bring a removal proceeding against you, even if you have an application for extension of status pending.”

The administration has provided little justification for this significant change in policy, which was first placed on the regulatory agenda in October 2018. The “Statement of Need” for the rule to end duration of status reads: “The failure to provide certain categories of nonimmigrants with specific dates for their authorized periods of stay can cause confusion over how long they may lawfully remain in the United States and has complicated the efforts to reduce overstay rates for nonimmigrant students. The clarity created by date-certain admissions will help reduce the overstay rate.”

The only evidence presented on international student overstay rates remains a series of flawed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reports – and even those reports show student overstay rates have dropped significantly.

As discussed previously, Department of Homeland Security reports include as “overstays” people who did not necessarily overstay a visa, but individuals who DHS could not confirm had departed the United States. The distinction is important. “The DHS figures represent actual overstays plus arrivals whose departure could not be verified,” writes Robert Warren, a senior visiting fellow at the Center for Migration Studies in an analysis.

Attorney Paul Virtue, a former top official at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, told me in an interview: “The DHS report on overstays is dependent on the accuracy of information in SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) and the agency’s ability to match entry and exit information, especially for students who, for example, may have departed through a land port of entry or have had a change of status that was not updated in SEVIS . . . there is still too much guesswork built into the DHS assumptions concerning the number of overstays among the student and exchange visitor populations.” (Emphasis added.)

Recent DHS reports show the purported overstay rate for F-1 students declined by 42% between FY 2016 and FY 2018, falling from 6.19% in FY 2016 to 3.59% in FY 2018. Despite this, DHS has not backed away from the potential rule to abolish duration of status and establish a maximum period of authorized stay for F-1 students.

Many in the international education community believe the “overstay” argument is being used to justify the policy rather than the actual impetus for eliminating duration of status. The motivation, many suspect, is to limit or discourage more international students from coming to the United States, as evidenced by a series of policies the administration has put forward to restrict international students and employment-based immigration.

New enrollment of international students at U.S. universities declined by more than 10% between the 2015-16 and 2018-2019 academic years. At the same time, in Australia the enrollment of international students in higher education increased by 47% between 2015 and 2018, according to Australian government data.

In Canada, the number of Indian international students rose from 76,075 in 2016 to 172,625 in 2018, an increase of 127%, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education. Canada makes it easy for international students to transition to work after graduation, which creates a path to permanent residence, notes Toronto-based attorney Peter Rekai. The number of Indians obtaining permanent residence in Canada doubled between 2016 and 2019.

At a time when other countries are attracting more students, increasing costs and adding new layers of uncertainty will likely discourage international students from coming to the United States.



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