The Administration Takes Another Swipe at Merit-Based Immigration

DHS’s new rule on international student visas is harmful to US higher education as well as the country’s economy

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) proposed rule establishing a fixed time period for education-related admission into the country will significantly disrupt the lives of hundreds of thousands of international students and exchange visitors in F, J and I visa categories. The controversial guidelines have already prompted more than 23,000 comments. If fully implemented, the rule will slow the current economic recovery and impose a drag on our long-term productivity and economic growth.

The new proposed rule will effectively restrict international students and exchange visitors by making it difficult for them to stay in the United States for the full duration of their studies. Under the current system of admissions, student visas are valid until the visa holders have completed their studies, with no hard expiration date. This allows international students with different lengths of study to maintain their status until graduation. While the typical undergraduate degree takes four years to complete, most students actually take longer than four years to graduate. As many as 1 in 4 students take six years or longer, and some students choose to pursue an advanced degree upon graduation.

Under the proposed new rule, international students will be subject to a hard four-year expiration date, with restricted ability to apply for an extension. If the course of study takes longer than four years, DHS will allow an extension in only a few kinds of exceptional circumstances, such as a documented illness.

Furthermore, citizens of countries with student visa overstay rates greater than 10 percent will have an expiration date of only two years, with a possible but not guaranteed extension. The curious choice of overstay percentages vs. actual overstay numbers means that countries with large overstay numbers won’t be affected, but those with high rates of overstay (mostly African and Middle Eastern countries) will be subject to the two-year rule. If the administration were truly concerned about visa overstays, then it would be more inclined to limit Canadian students, with 85,000 visa overstays in 2018, than Nigerian students, with 29,000 overstays in the same year.

What’s more concerning, the data that DHS uses to calculate student visa overstay rates are inaccurate as they tend to inflate the actual rate of overstays. A study by the National Foundation for American Policy finds that “the DHS figures represent actual overstays plus arrivals whose departure could not be verified,” according to demographer Robert Warren. “That is, they include both actual overstays and unrecorded departures.”

Over the past three years, international student enrollment in US colleges has fallen by over 10 percent. If this new rule is implemented, that trend will only worsen. This is problematic for several reasons.

To begin with, many universities depend on foreign students for financial support. Indeed, according to the Institute of International Education, 1,095,299 international students studied at US colleges and universities in 2019, representing more than 1 in 20 college students. For many universities, foreign students make up an even higher share of the student body, particularly in graduate programs. And international students typically pay the highest, out-of-state tuition rates, generating needed income for universities that can help keep tuition more affordable for US students.

In addition, international students are a boon to the US economy. During the 2018–2019 academic year, foreign students contributed a total of $44.7 billion to the country’s economic bottom line and supported more than 458,290 jobs. That means that for every 10 international students who choose to study in the United States, at least 4 domestic jobs are created either directly or indirectly, and the US economy benefits from additional spending of $408,100. Foreign students have pumped more than $1 billion annually into the economies of such swing states as Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

International students also support the US economy through the skills and human capital they bring to the country’s labor force. Around half of international students are enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs, and many will enter the US workforce through Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT) visas for recent graduates, J-1 visas for researchers and professors or H-1B visas for high-skilled workers.

Some of these students, particularly those enrolled in STEM programs, end up as entrepreneurs and innovators in the technology industry. Indeed, of all billion-dollar startups in the United States, 22 percent—including Zoom, Tesla, SpaceX, and Instagram—had at least one immigrant founder who first came to the country as an international student. If the new proposed rule limiting student visas is allowed to stand, the entrepreneurial energy of foreign students will flow to other countries, such as Canada and Australia, nations that have opened the door even further in recent years to international students.

International student programs have also been a pipeline for skilled healthcare workers serving on the front lines of America’s ongoing battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. In the academic year 2018–2019, more than 35,000 international students on F-1 visas were studying in healthcare-related majors in the United States. The tighter visa rules will almost inevitably mean fewer potential workers in the healthcare field, leaving the United States even less prepared to battle the coronavirus and other public health challenges.

Earlier this year, DHS attempted to restrict the issuance of student visas through policy guidance that would have denied visas for those whose college classes were moving fully online. After Harvard and MIT filed lawsuits against the rule, the administration was quickly forced to rescind the rule. After the failure of policy guidance efforts to restrict foreign students, the administration is now attempting to do that same thing via the regulatory route.

In sum, the proposed DHS rule is yet another attack by the administration on highly educated foreign students who benefit the US immensely through their support of the academic industry and their contributions to the sciences, technological innovations and the broader US economy. Discouraging the world’s best and brightest minds from choosing to study in the United States over other advanced nations will lead them to take their tuition, their talents and their technological savvy elsewhere, leaving the United States a poorer place as a result.

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