March 5, 2021

With every new Trump visa restriction, the US becomes less attractive to international students

There are less than six weeks to go before voters here in the United States choose their next president. There is at least a plausible chance that the present office-holder, Donald Trump, may lose his job. This means that there may be only a few months left for his government to push through any last-minute policies in its favourite areas. Chief among these is immigration.

For those of us who study in the US as international students, that is ominous. This administration has been characterized by ceaseless belligerence towards foreigners. Trump banned travel to the US from several countries; ramped up the detention of undocumented immigrants while separating families and putting children in cages; proposed suspending due process for migrants; and curtailed visa programs for foreign workers.

In recent months, the American government has found a new outlet for its unending wrath against non-citizens: international students. In July, the government unveiled a rule that would prevent international students from re-entering the US for the fall semester if their classes were entirely online. It was a decision so poorly reasoned that, after receiving massive backlash from businesses, universities, and even its own Republican party, the government rescinded the policy rather than face a lawsuit brought by leading universities.

The latest salvo has come this week, dispatched by the Department of Homeland Security. A new proposal reworks the rules on student visas, of the sort that I and over a million others currently hold. At the moment, these visas last for the duration of a student’s course, without a rigid expiration date. The proposed reform would impose a hard expiration date on any new visas issued, and tightly limits circumstances in which a student can apply for a renewal.

In addition, and most aggressively, the new rules would bar citizens or natives of certain countries from obtaining a student visa valid for longer than two years. This essentially prevents them from completing a standard American undergraduate degree, which takes four years. The rule would affect students from a stunning list of countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, and most of Africa. Students would still be permitted to apply for visa extensions, but that process is expensive, onerous, and carries an immense risk of denial for students from poorer countries.

The countries are on the list because they are either considered a state sponsor of terror (Iran, Sudan, Syria, and North Korea) or because students from those countries have an overstay rate of more than ten percent.

The first of these rationales means that the US is willing to hurt ordinary scholars in the name of national security. This is no surprise, going by the government’s track record on such issues. It is the second reason, however, that is truly outrageous.

Choosing to target countries by percentage, rather than the total number of students overstaying their visas, leads to absurd results. Canada has almost 90,000 students overstaying their American student visas; most of the countries on the list have miniscule numbers doing the same. As Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council has pointed out, four of the five Tuvalu nationals who studied in the US in 2019 departed the country on time. One did not, leading to an overstay rate of 17% and dropping Tuvalu onto the proposed list of restricted visas.

This arbitrary targeting of overstay rates suggests that Trump is not actually concerned about the number of students illegally present in the US. Instead, this is simply a convenient avenue to target the sort of people he does not want in his country: Africans, Asians, people from the Middle East – in short, “shithole countries”, in Trump’s own language. These new regulations would neatly fit the present administration’s policy towards international students, an attitude that combines capricious decision-making with a truculent disregard for the well-being of non-citizens.

The number of enrolled international students in the US has declined every year since 2015. This is unsurprising: the administration has tried its best to generate an atmosphere of hostility, to make us feel like we are not welcome. It is working. With each new policy that curtails visas or otherwise makes it harder for international students to study in the US, America’s age-old educational lustre fades a little further.

This country has the best universities in the world, and it is a privilege to study here – but Trump and his supporters try to make it seem as if we are here to suck the lifeblood out of hardworking American communities. The opposite is true: international students contribute an estimated $41 billion to the American economy annually, and support some 458,000 jobs. Throwing away those benefits in the name of abstract fear-mongering and a dogmatic obsession with reducing the number of foreigners in America is reckless and stupefying.

It is also perfectly in character. Us international students are soft targets, easy to attack, bereft of much sympathy from Trump’s base. But no country can possibly gain from trying to shut out foreign students. America’s long and glorious academic heritage was hewn by the free exchange of ideas across borders: more than a third of its Nobel Prize-winning scientists have been immigrants, for example. This magnificent legacy of talent-nurturing and liberal education is the reason for America’s image as a global magnet for a better education and a better life. Attacking international students, again and again, is an insult to the American academic tradition. It is not worthy of this country’s heritage, nor of its future.

Aditya Sharma is a freelance writer and a student at Columbia University, New York. His Twitter handle is @AdityaNSharma.

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