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US: student exemption to Covid travel rule for China, Brazil, Europe, Iran

Stakeholders are welcoming a new rule that means exemption to Covid travel restrictions for students from August 2021, but are calling for more action - especially to address extreme visa backlogs in China.
April 28 2021
2 Min Read

Students and certain academics who had been unable to enter the US because of Covid restrictions will be subject to a National Interest Exception (NIE) if they are presently in China, Iran, Brazil, South Africa, the European Schengen area, the UK and Ireland.

The NIE rule applies for any F-1 or M-1 visa holder if their academic program begins August 1 2021 or later. Those applicants who are found to be otherwise qualified for an F-1 or M-1 visa will automatically be considered for an NIE to travel.

This news, announced April 26 by the state department, will be welcome, but more needs to be done say senior stakeholders, particularly regarding the reported problems (in China especially) accessing appointments to seek a US visa. NAFSA is calling for in-person interviews to cease to be mandatory to help resume processing at pace.

From February 2020 to January 2021, only 48 F-1 student visas have been issued

Andrew Chen at WholeRen Education told The PIE, “Yes, removing the student 14-day third country travel restriction is welcomed.

“Also, I’m glad to see the reason is ‘National Interest Exception’.  Finally, international students have been placed as national interests, rather than unwanted spies.”

Jill Welch, senior advisor at Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, acknowledged, “This recent action by secretary Blinken addresses the first pillar by resolving a significant policy barrier that would have prevented the majority of international students from being able to enrol in our colleges and universities this fall.

“That said, there is still much work to be done as the administration must turn its attention to ensuring efficient, transparent processes for visa applications and issuance.

“It must make welcoming international students a core priority for rebuilding our economy, preparing for the next global crisis and strengthening our ties around the world. ”

Chen nodded to the extreme frustration around visa issuance, noting that the China visa processing blockage has not been officially addressed by the state department.

“The F-1 visa in China has been closed for 14 months. Appointments have been continuously cancelled weekly till April 30.”

He said there was an estimation of 200,000 F-1 student visas to be processed in China in May, June and July. As reported in The PIE, currently, “some students with means and third party support choose to go to third countries like Singapore to obtain the visa”, said Chen.

He explained that according to the department of state data, in the period of February 2020 to January 2021, only 48 F-1 student visas have been issued, comparing 103,086 F-1 issued in the previous 12 month period.

At NAFSA, Jill Allen Murray, deputy executive director, public policy, welcomed the move but said important questions regarding eligibility and implementation remain.

“These include whether J-1 students and J-1 professors and research scholars may qualify for this exception and how the department of state plans to address both the current backlog in visa processing and the influx that is expected to follow this announcement.

“We urge the state department to ensure that this policy change is accompanied by greater flexibility in processing visa requests, including waiving the in-person interview requirement as much as possible, more clarity as to how consulates overseas will handle this increased demand, and increased stakeholder engagement as the department develops those plans.”

In other welcome news for the sector, ICE announced this week that its March 2020 guidance on permitted distance learning would be extended for the 2021-22 academic year.

Chen told The PIE, “This is good news also. This allows international students to take the class remotely without jeopardising their full-time F-1 student active status.”

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