Immigration rules for international students at U.S. colleges and universities have undergone multiple changes during the Trump administration. In his transition plan, President-elect Joe Biden proposes changing some of them to loosen visa restrictions.
Biden, projected as winner of the November 3 presidential election, does not specifically refer to undergraduate foreign students in his “Plan for Securing Our Values as a Nation of Immigrants,” at JoeBiden.com.
But he says he will increase the number of visas for “permanent, employment-based immigration — and promote mechanisms to temporarily reduce the number of visas during times of high U.S. unemployment.”
Foreign students identify barriers to permanent employment opportunities in the United States as a reason some do not pick America as an education destination, according to the Institute for International Education (IIE).
U.S. colleges and universities enrolled more than 1 million international students last year, but after decades of increase, enrollment has stalled in the past two years, IIE says.
Issuance of the F-1, or student visa, has decreased over the past four years, according to State Department data. In fiscal 2016, 502,214 F-1 visas were issued. In 2017, the number dropped to 421,008. In 2019, 388,839 F-1 visas were issued.
Student visas are issued by the State Department and administered by the Department of Homeland Security.
“Biden believes that foreign graduates of a U.S. doctoral program should be given a green card with their degree and that losing these highly trained workers to foreign economies is a disservice to our own economic competitiveness,” the president-elect's website says.
Most international students come to the U.S. on F-1 visas. After graduation, some apply for the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which allows students to work in their major field of study for up to 12 months. Students with degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) can extend their OPT for up to 24 months.
Students who want to remain in the U.S. and gain work experience, especially those in STEM fields, seek H-1B visas after OPT.
More than 30% of international students come from China and 20% from India. Those students typically pursue STEM degrees, according to IIE.
President Donald Trump made cases of theft of intellectual property by foreign students who worked for U.S. companies or federal agencies the foundation of his curbs on student immigration. The administration also cited espionage among international students and guest workers to justify limiting their access to the U.S.
International students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy and supported 458,290 jobs in the 2018-19 academic year, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
Here is a history of student visa changes attempted and implemented under the Trump administration:
September 2020: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed a rule limiting student visas to a fixed four-year term. To remain longer, international students would have to apply for an extension.
Also, students from a country with a visa overstay rate of 10% or a country on the U.S. State Department’s State Sponsor of Terrorism list would be limited to two years.
DHS accepted public feedback until October 26, and the rule remains under consideration.
July 2020: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a modification that would compel international students enrolled in online-only courses at U.S. universities and colleges to be on campus during a pandemic or risk deportation.
The modification was rescinded after Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued ICE with signatures of support from officials at more than 200 U.S. universities.
June 2020: The Trump administration issued an order suspending H-1B, J and other temporary work visas. The ban affected applicants and lasts until the end of this year.
May 2020: On May 29, Trump issued an executive order banning Chinese graduate students on an F or J visa and Chinese researchers from entering the U.S.
J visas holders are allowed to participate in work-and-study exchange visitor programs in the U.S.
The White House issued numerous statements saying China has engaged in acquiring U.S. technology and intellectual property “in part to bolster the modernization and capability of its military” and that some “Chinese postgraduate students and postdoctorate researchers operate as nontraditional collectors of intellectual property.” The order did not apply to Chinese undergraduate students or green card holders.
China has sent the largest number of international students to the U.S. for 10 consecutive years: 369,548 students in undergraduate, graduate, nondegree and OPT programs out of 1,095,299 in 2019, according to the Institute for International Education.
February 2020: The Trump administration issued a rule requiring international students to seek approval for staying during each stage of their studies in the U.S. The rule established a “maximum period of authorized stay” to reduce overstay rates and to lessen “confusion over how long they may lawfully remain in the United States.”
June 2019: International students created petitions or wrote letters citing long processing times for federal work authorization and asked their universities for assistance. Some students lost internships and money spent on housing and flights.
May 2019: DHS announced increases in fees charged to international students, exchange visitors and other schools.
For F and M international students — M visas allow internationals to participate in nonacademic or vocational studies — the I-901 SEVIS fee increased from $200 to $350. For J exchange visitors who are allowed to participate in work-and-study exchange programs, the full I-901 SEVIS fee increased from $180 to $220.
For Student and Exchange Visitor Program-certified schools — those that host F and M visa holders — the certification petition fee increased from $1,700 to $3,000.
May 2018: USCIS issued a memorandum changing how it calculates “unlawful presence” for nonimmigrants on F, J and M visas and their dependents. Graduates who overstay their visas could face up to a 10-year ban from the country under the policy.
The change is intended to “reduce the number of overstays” and “improve how USCIS implements the unlawful presence ground of inadmissibility,” USCIS stated.
USCIS published a revised policy memorandum after receiving feedback from the public.
January 2017: On January 27, Trump signed an executive order banning foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S.
This impacted immigrant and nonimmigrant visa holders from Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen, including students. The list has since been amended and now applies to 13 countries.
The New York Times reported that an estimated 17,000 students in the United States were impacted by the ban, most of them from universities in the Northeast and California.