In response to the Department of Homeland Security’s proposed rule to limit the stay of international students in the U.S. to a fixed period of two or four years, the University submitted a comment to the DHS on Oct. 26 urging that the proposed rule be withdrawn.
The rule was released on Sept. 25 and was just one of many recent efforts introduced by the Trump administration to tighten immigration laws and increase national security. The public was given 30 days to comment and since then, the DHS has received over 32,000 comments from individuals and universities across the country regarding the proposed rule.
Written by University Provost Liz Magill on behalf of the University, the comment stated that the proposal would have wide-reaching implications for higher education institutions in the U.S.
“The proposed rule would disincentivize American higher education’s recruitment of the world’s most promising students, scholars, and researchers and undermine America’s economic, technological, and intellectual primacy in the world today,” Magill wrote.
Currently, under the duration of status framework, individuals with F, J and I visa classifications — students, exchange visitors and representatives of foreign media, respectively — are allowed to remain in the U.S. until they complete their programs.
Under the new rule, these individuals would be prohibited from staying beyond four years, regardless of the duration of their program of study. They can re-apply for admission, but there is no guarantee that these visa extension requests will be approved. According to the rule, extensions will only be granted under very specific circumstances.
“DHS is proposing to...incorporate a new standard that makes it clear that acceptable reasons for requesting an extension of a stay for additional time to complete a program are: (1) Compelling academic reasons; (2) a documented illness or medical condition; and (3) exceptional circumstances beyond the control of the alien,” the proposed rule read.
Foreign media representatives will only be allowed to work in the U.S. for up to 240 days, whereas currently they can remain in the U.S. until the completion of their assignments. A one-time extension of up to 240 days can be requested.
Further restrictions have been placed on students from countries designated as “State Sponsors of Terrorism” — Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria — and countries with visa overstay rates exceeding 10 percent, such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Haiti, Ghana, Iraq, the Philippines, Vietnam and more. Individuals from countries that meet these criteria will be limited to a two-year period of authorized stay but are also able to reapply for admission if necessary.
This new proposed rule comes only months after a similar U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement rule — which restricted international students from entering or remaining in the U.S. if their fall semester would be held entirely online due to COVID-19 restrictions — was rescinded due to public backlash.
The University’s comment mentioned the importance of international students and exchange visitors across many fields at the University, ranging from medical trainees and resident physicians who provide health care through the University Health System, graduate research assistants in STEM fields who drive the research enterprise and business students who serve as bridges to inward foreign direct investment.
“U.Va.’s international students are a critical ingredient in our efforts to instill in our American students the global awareness and engagement that will be critically important to their future professional success,” Magill wrote. “When they return home after completing education, our international students, scholars, and researchers typically become invaluable and successful examples of American values and supporters of improved relations with the United States.”
Nearly 3,000 currently-enrolled students at the University hold F-1 visas, while there are 243 J-1 holders on the academic and health system staff, according to the University comment.
Stephen D. Mull, vice provost for Global Affairs, said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily that part of being a global university is hosting international students. The letter provides a way to register the strong objection the University felt towards the proposed rule, which was only the latest issue affecting international students during a year that has posed many barriers.
“One of the reasons I think America is such a great place for progress and innovation and excellence in technology and research is because we have the world’s best scholars studying here,” Mull said. “Making it harder for them to come here is not in our interest as a university, [and] it’s certainly not in our interest as a country, so we’re really glad to have the opportunity to push back against these rules.”
The process of drafting the letter response began when an immigration lawyer hired by the University analyzed the proposed rule and what it would mean for U.Va. The University shared the analysis with peer universities and also consulted the deans offices of all schools across the University to receive input.
Most important, however, was the virtual town hall meeting the University hosted with over 100 international students in attendance, presenting an opportunity for them to have their concerns addressed.
The comment to the DHS specifically listed five criticisms of the rule. First, it stated that setting period of stay limits would add regulatory burdens, create inequities among the student body and generate uncertainties regarding expected enrollment levels.
The second criticism argued that applying for an Extension of Stay would be stressful and costly, decreasing attendance at the University as students instead choose to move to countries with fewer barriers to learning.
According to the letter, which used data from the National Center of Educational Statistics, international students on average complete four-year bachelor degree programs faster than American students, but for 44 percent of international students, the process requires more than five years. Completion of a PhD program at the University typically takes five or more years, and many other postdoctoral training programs also require more than three years.
The third criticism argued that regulating international physicians undergoing medical training on J-1 visas would jeopardize the University Health System by disrupting their ability to care for patients. The fourth criticism pertained to the University’s research capabilities, which may diminish as international students constitute over one-fifth of the graduate student population. Lastly, those who want to participate in Optional Practical Training would have to apply for an Extension of Stay, which would deter students from seeking out potential employment.
Throughout this year, the University has consistently worked to help the international student community. After visa services were suspended due to the pandemic and travel restrictions further prevented international students from entering the country, the University strategized to provide opportunities for newly admitted international students who were unable to leave their home countries.
The University partnered with Fudan University in Shanghai, where over 80 first-year students from China were admitted to Fudan as exchange students from U.Va., despite the fact that they were already living in China. In addition to taking courses at Fudan, they also take online courses at the University.
“The pandemic forces us to find solutions in ways that we might not have thought of before, but it forces us to be more innovative and more resilient,” Mull said. “In the end it’ll make us stronger, and I think it helps us do a better job for our international students.”
There has been growing political pressure on the government from both Democratic and Republican members of Congress who have protested this rule. President-elect Joe Biden’s administration has pledged to loosen and reverse many of the immigration policies put in place by the Trump administration.