us study visa
US colleges grapple with increasing paperwork and bureaucracy to secure US study visas for their students under the Trump admnistration. Source: Shutterstock

US universities and student advocates are railing against the Trump administration’s tightening of study visa restrictions, claiming such aggressive measures would only make the country less competitive in the hunt for global talent.

Their attack is focused on a recent policy memorandum by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) which redefines what constitutes “unlawful presence” for foreigners in the student visa and exchange program. Visa overstayers also stand to be banned from the country for up to 10 years under the new changes.

Speaking to New York Times, Jill Welch, the deputy executive director for public policy at Nafsa, the Association of International Educators said: “It is clear that in an attempt to ‘enhance public safety,’ the administration seeks to further close the door on academic talent.”

“This is yet another policy which makes the United States less attractive to talented international students and scholars.”

USCIS’s announcement follows a string of immigration policies seen as making it more difficult for international students for study and work in the US post-graduation.

A USCIS policy memo issued in February announced that employers are now required to show “detailed statements of work or work orders” about an H-1B visa holder’s work at a third-party site. They are also in the final stages of revoking a visa program that allows spouses of these H-1B visa holders to work legally in the US.

Meanwhile, for students applying for work authorisation under the Optional Practical Training program, a new interpretation of USCIS regulations no longer allows employment at third-party client sites.

The new reality: Harsh punishment for ‘unlawful’ presence

Currently, “unlawful presence” only begins “the day after USCIS formally [finds] a non-immigrant status violation.”

Under the new policy, which is due to take effect in August, the unlawful presence begins “the day after the F, J, or M non-immigrant no longer pursues the course of study or the authorized activity or the day after he or she engages in an unauthorized activity”.

This means “the day after” the student is no longer enrolled in their course, they will be considered as being unlawfully present in the US.

Anyone who accrues over 180 days of unlawful presence faces being banned from entering the US for a minimum of three years – but this can stretch up to a 10-year ban.

Trump’s “Muslim Ban” last year was blamed for the country’s universities falling international enrolment. Source: AFP/Drew Angerer

Immigration officials say this new policy is aligned with the executive order Trump signed last year, in which visa overstayers were described as “a significant threat to national security and public safety”.

But critics argue Trump’s “America First” policy is negatively impacting the country’s ability to attract scholars from abroad, thus impeding the country’s research institutions and its ability to fill high-skilled jobs. In addition, international students also contribute US$39.4 billion to the US economy in 2016, according to the US Department of Commerce.

To immigration lawyer Angelo A Paparelli, the harsh punishment means small mistakes could now carry big consequences. This is especially so for students waiting for a new visa or transitioning into a new one, as they could easily be considered to be in violation of the new policy during the gap from one visa status to another.

Since these violations can be applied retroactively, these students stand to be subjected to an automatic ban.

“The effect of this change will be felt by businesses,” Paparelli said. “It will foreclose what have been standard approaches to transitioning from student to worker, whether that’s on an H1-B or some other work visa category, or the transition to permanent residence.”

US universities appear to be already feeling the adverse effects of these hostile policies towards international students. An Institute of International Education survey of nearly 500 US universities found that the number of newly arriving international students fell by an average of 7 percent in fall 2017.

Further targeting international students is hardly the best way to reverse this trend.

According to Adam Julian who heads the international student and scholar services and outreach at Appalachian State University, international students are already among the most scrutinized populations in the immigration system because their visas require constant reporting of enrolment information, such as addresses and full-time status in school.

But now, even the smallest miscommunication with school officials could lead to a violation.

“We’ve always stressed compliance with students; that’s not changing,” Julian said.

“But we will just be especially vigilant on advising students that this is the new reality: The US is ultimately going to be a country that does not want to benefit from everything that international scholars have to offer.”

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