With the industry at a ‘shelter in place’ footing with many US universities forced to partially close their campuses, the briefing organised by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration in conjunction with NAFSA featured the perspectives of policy experts and higher education leaders.
The sector has concerns around international students’ ongoing access to work rights, via the optical practical training [OPT] programs, amid turbulence in the jobs market.
Although the Department of Homeland Security has confirmed students can continue their coursework online without it adversely affecting their visa status, a letter penned to DHS by NAFSA outlines concerns that remain around OPT, among a wider wishlist.
“We want the government to adapt…to protect the health and safety of international students”
Addressing webinar attendees, NAFSA director of Regulatory Practice Liaison Steve Springer explained the organisation has been looking at some key areas.
“We want the government to adapt, first of all, to protect the health and safety of international students and exchange visitors,” he said.
“We want them to adapt to facilitate the maintenance of status of these folk, and institutional compliance with laws. We want them to use electronic records and documents to avoid the location-based problem.
“And then finally, we want them to provide resources, guidance and other kinds of resources to students and exchange visitors.”
Among the requests in NAFSA’s letter to DHS was for the department to not consider the time spent unemployed during the COVID-19 emergency towards the post-completion OPT and STEM OPT unemployment limits.
“Another issue…will SEVP and DHS make accommodations for students on OPT who are laid off or furloughed?” asked Springer.
“When you’re on OPT or STEM OPT, you’re limited in the amount of time you can be unemployed, so that’s going to be a huge issue for students if they’re furloughed for a long time, and we’re hoping for some guidance on that.”
Described as one of the country’s “greatest strengths” for attracting international students, the number of participants in OPT programs grew by 9.6% to 223,085 in 2018/19.
On March 27, SEVP updated its FAQ on the question ‘Due to COVID-19, what is SEVP’s advice to students who want to apply for OPT? Is there any chance that students would be able to apply for post-completion OPT from outside the United States?’.
“DHS is evaluating these issues and may issue additional guidance. USCIS adjudicates OPT employment authorisation and status requests for F and M students and has yet to issue official guidance on these issues,” SEVP wrote.
Speaking at the webinar, president of the Illinois Institute of Technology, Alan Cramb, said that clarity on the situation is key, adding that many students come to the US by borrowing money, “sometimes at 12% or higher, and use OPT and CPT as a method to either reduce or eliminate this debt”.
“If OPT is not available or is in doubt, many students will not come to the US,” he warned.
Regarding economic hardship authorisation – where an F-1 student may request off-campus work authorisation based on unforeseen circumstances – professor of Immigration Law Practice at Cornell Law School, Stephen Yale-Loehr, said it is determined on a case-by-case basis.
“We don’t know how the immigration agency is going to interpret [it] or be generous or restrictive in granting it given the coronavirus situation,” he added.
“But simply stating ‘I deserve work authorisation because of COVID-19’ will not work. You need to have very specific, very individualised facts to present a compelling case to the immigration agency about that.”
Springer said that going forward, NAFSA will be shifting emphasis towards what lies ahead for fall 2020.
“That’s obviously a huge issue facing us,” Springer said, while Cramb pointed out that the economic model of education in the US “does not work if there are no international students, even for one semester”.
“If OPT is not available or is in doubt, many students will not come to the US”
“However, we face that possibility this fall [because of] one action; no visas are being given in all consulates around the world for travel to the United States, and students who had their reserved times for an interview had them cancelled with no new date only told reapply later,” Cramb said.
He described the State department’s decision to halt all visa processing as an “unprecedented fiscal and scholarly challenge” to American colleges and universities.
“We must advocate for this process to continue, even if it means that the interview is not done in person and that duel intent should be allowed.”
Cramb added that the most important thing to consider is that how international students are treated today will determine how many international students the US will have tomorrow.
“If we look after our current students and care for them, they will go back to their countries and people will still come.
“If we treat them poorly now or don’t look after them, that’ll have a really bad effect on our future with international students,” he said.