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“Difficult times will continue” for US sector, stakeholders warn

US international education and exchange advocates have warned that “difficult times will continue” when it comes to the entry of students into the country, obtaining visas and OPT.

USEnglishUSA held the conference online from October 1-2. Photo: EnglishUSA

US higher education lost a potential billion dollars from disrupted study abroad programs

Speaking during EnglishUSA’s 2020 Stakeholders Conference, NAFSA senior director for public policy and legislative strategy, Rachel Banks, said that if president Trump is reelected, it would lead to “essentially more of the same”.

“We have to really anticipate that policy for priorities that were carried out in this first administration will continue to be priorities in the second term,” she said.

“If Biden were to be elected, we certainly can and should expect changes”

“However, if [Joe] Biden were to be elected, we certainly can and should expect changes, in fact, significant changes. But I will say probably not everything right away or immediately. Addressing Covid-19 will be the top priority.”

Research from the organisation in April suggested that US higher education lost a potential billion dollars from disrupted study abroad programs, as well as having spent approximately $638 million on supporting international students, scholars, faculty and staff that were on campus.

NAFSA said it also had to lay off staff during the summer.

“[The survey] indicated a potential loss of over four billion dollars for US higher education due to the impact of Covid. We feel like that’s probably a very conservative estimation,” Banks added.

Banks further highlighted a recent trend of “Congress essentially limiting its activity to major must-pass legislation like budget and appropriations legislation” while “more and more issues have continually shifted to be decided in the courts”.

This pattern has been prevalent in many of the recent issues around visas and border entry, as well as the administration’s attempts to ban the apps Tiktok and WeChat, where regulations have been enjoined at the last moment by district judges.

However, Banks’ NAFSA colleague Steven Springer, director of regulatory practice liaison, pointed out that the administration’s regulatory agenda could bring “more pain” to the sector.

While the autumn agenda is yet to be released, its spring edition advocates fee increases for SEVP services and consular fees, expanding biometrics usages and the elimination of duration of study status – although on September 29 a nationwide preliminary injunction was issued against fee changes for some types of visa procedures.

He further highlighted the impact of the Department of Homeland Security’s proposal to change how periods of stay are calculated for students on F and J visas, with students from some countries having a maximum limit of four years. 

This would mean that students would be admitted to the US for the period indicated on their I-20 or DS-2019 but limited to a maximum period of stay spelt out in the rule,” he explained.

“There are various kinds of maximum periods of stay for various kinds of students. But a student in English language training programs would be limited to an aggregate 24 months of language study, and this would include breaks and annual vacations.”

Control of this would be under the USCIS, which Springer called “deeply concerning”.

USCIS is facing a funding crisis and possible furloughs due partly to the economic slowdown and the administration’s immigration policies,” he said.

“[USCIS] is not at all known for reasonable processing times or excellent customer service”

“It is not at all known for reasonable processing times or excellent customer service in any way. Three months is often a good processing time. We often see processing times for certain applications go to six months, and in recent years, we’ve seen some applications lag to 18 months,” he added.

“You’re going to give the agency that may be least capable the duty to make these adjudications.”

Ilir Zherka, executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange also gave attendees an update on actions against the June 22 presidential proclamation “suspending entry of aliens who present a risk to the US labour market following the coronavirus outbreak”.

“There are two lawsuits [against it]. One decided a couple of weeks ago that there would not be an injunction even though the judge thought portions of the proclamation will be found to be illegal,” he said.

“There is a second suit in California and we’re waiting for the results of that lawsuit. We’re still hopeful that we may get an injunction,” Zherka added.

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