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US mulls tougher foreign student policy, annual visa renewals

International students may be required to reapply for permission to stay in the US every year, if a proposal aimed at increasing national security goes through.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   13-07-2017
A research group with international faculty and students
A research group with international faculty and students
(file photo by UC Davis College of Engineering, used under CC license)

International students in the United States haven’t exactly received a warm welcome under the Donald Trump presidency, and things are beginning to look bleaker. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is threatening to unleash a bureaucratic nightmare by requiring foreign students to reapply for permission to stay in the US every year.

“The controversial move would create new costs and paperwork for thousands of visa holders from China, India, and other countries, according to two federal officials with direct knowledge of the discussions,” reported The Washington Post.
The proposal seeks to increase national security by more closely monitoring foreign students.

“The plan is in the preliminary stages and would require regulatory changes that could take a minimum of 18 months. The plan may also require agreement from the State Department, which issues visas,” The Post added.

DHSspokesman David Lapan confirmed that the international student program is one of many under review, without delving into specifics.  “DHS is exploring a variety of measures that would ensure that our immigration programs — including programs for international students studying in the United States — operate in a manner that promotes the national interest, enhances national security and public safety and ensures the integrity of our immigration system,” Lapan said in a statement.

Under current federal regulations, a foreign student’s immigration status in the US is valid as long as she is enrolled in school. Students can transfer from one educational institution to another and many stay in the US for years without having to reapply for permission. But the new proposal, if implemented, will make a student’s visa status time-bound, the report said.

Jill Welch, deputy executive director for public policy, at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, blasted the proposal for being “duplicative and unnecessary”.

“A potential move to require students to reapply for permission to stay in the US each year would have grave consequences for our national security, foreign policy and economic interests, as well as America’s scientific and innovative strength,” she said.

Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for the Association of American Universities, who served as former deputy assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, called the policy “a logistical nightmare”.

Some DHS officials have earlier complained that student visas are too open-ended and ripe for abuse. The department estimated that more than 628,000 people overstayed their US visas in 2016. And, 40,000 of those overstays were student and exchange visa holders.

Still, the new proposal comes at a time when Indian students are wary of heading to Trump’s America where anti-immigrant rhetoric and a possible lack of jobs, along with steeper visa fees are scaring off Indian students from applying to US universities.

More than three-quarters of US colleges and institutions surveyed in April this year expressed concern about future enrollment. “Nearly 40% of responding US institutions are reporting a drop in international student applications, particularly from students in the Middle East,” showed the findings from a survey of 250 schools by six higher-education groups, including the Institute of International Education (IIE).

According to the survey, 26% of universities reported a decline in undergraduate applications from India, in addition to a 15% decline in India’s graduate applications.

This is not the first time that international students would face the brunt of immigration changes since President Trump’s election in November last year.

A number of international students and university faculty were affected by the implementation of two executive orders announced at the start of the year, limiting travel from six mostly Muslim countries.

Dipping figures are a reversal of about a decade of steady increases in applications from international students, which pushed the number of international students studying in the US to over one million last year, according to the ‘Open Doors’ report published by the IIE. International students brought about $36 billion last year to the US economy and universities have become increasingly dependent on that revenue.

In the last year alone, Indian students contributed $5 billion to the US economy, while Chinese students contributed another $11 billion.

On average, international students pay much higher fees than locals and help US colleges plug the budget gaps caused by reductions in state funding. Public schools often charge international students two to three times what domestic students pay, thereby subsidising the cost of tuition for US students.

Uttara Choudhury is a writer for Forbes India and The Wire. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London. 

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