Under current visa rules, international students are admitted into the US for the period of time that they are complying with the terms and conditions of their nonimmigrant category.
“In a system that is already extremely complex, this rule would undoubtedly create a high degree of uncertainty”
But now the Department of Homeland Security is proposing changes to visas which would see academic students (F) and exchange visitors (J) admitted into the US for a “fixed time period”.
This fixed time period differs for students depending on the country they come from, with some having a fixed time period of four years.
However, students from countries on the State Sponsor of Terrorism List or from those with a student visa overstay rate of more than 10% could be limited to studying in the US for just two years.
The DHS said that the changes would give them the ability to effectively monitor and oversee those on nonimmigrant visas.
“Nonimmigrants admitted in the F, J, and I classifications generally do not currently begin to accrue unlawful presence until the day after there is a formal finding of a status violation by USCIS or an immigration judge, they are often able to avoid accrual of unlawful presence for purposes of statutory inadmissibility grounds of unlawful presence,” the DHS said.
The DHS claims this is in part because nonimmigrants on F, J and I visas do not file applications or petitions, such as an extension of stay, that would result in a formal finding.
“The Department accordingly is concerned about the integrity of the programs and a potential for increased risk to national security,” DHS added.
However, the proposals have been criticised by stakeholders in the international education sector, with Esther Brimmer, executive director and CEO of NAFSA, arguing that the new rules would be both “complicated and burdensome”.
“Today’s announced proposed rule is set to replace a proven, flexible policy that has served international students and exchange visitors for decades,” she said.
“In a system that is already extremely complex, this rule would undoubtedly create a high degree of uncertainty for international students and exchange visitors.
If finalised, the rule would also make it more difficult for international students and scholars to maintain their legal status in the US and make it far more difficult for international educators to administer, she continued.
There is also some confusion around students pursuing PhD programs, which can take six years or longer.
Under the new rules, some students will be subject to two-year admission rather than four years. These include students in North Korea, Iran, Sudan, and Syria.
Once this fixed period is up, students would have to apply for extensions.
The two year rule will also apply for countries with a student visa overstay rate of more than 10%, which could affect students from more than 40 countries, according to a CNN analysis of DHS data.
A ‘national interest’ category would also allow DHS to limit certain programs under a federal register notice.
“To put it clearly, this is simply bad policy,” said Brimmer.
“This new rule would impact every international student and exchange visitor, higher education institution that admits or sponsors them, and employer who benefits from international student graduates,” she said, adding that “the policy would not make the United States any safer”.
Brimmer also pointed out that international students and exchange visitors are already tracked by DHS and monitored by institutions of higher education and research organisations.
“To put it clearly, this is simply bad policy”
The proposed rule has a 30-day comment period, but Brimmer said that it is “immensely detailed with onerous” requirements.
“[It] is frankly being viewed by many in higher education as another attempt by this administration to send a message to immigrants, and in particular international students and exchange visitors, that their exceptional talent, work ethic, diverse perspectives, and economic stimulus are not welcome in the United States,” she concluded.
Earlier this year SEVP released guidance which banned international students from studying fully online courses while remaining in the US. The guidance was quickly rescinded following widespread criticism.
The more than one million international students in the US are estimated to have a $41bn economic impact and account for 5.5% of all students enrolled in HE there.