Students applying for student visas and Optional Practical Training say they feel anxious over recent immigration orders.

The U.S. government’s recent executive order to suspend the issuance of Lawful Permanent Resident permits (green cards) has left international students at U.S. colleges and universities uncertain about their enrollment and future plans.

Though the decision does not directly affect student visas, it left open the option to review nonimmigrant programs “within 30 days of the effective date of this proclamation” and could recommend “other measures to stimulate the United States economy” (during the COVID-19 crisis).

Student visas are under the nonimmigrant visa category issued to foreign nationals seeking to enter the United States on a temporary basis.

Athiyah Azeem, a journalism student at the University of Maryland who graduates in May, said she applied for Optional Practical Training (OPT) but is worried her paperwork will not be processed before her visa expires.

“When I apply for jobs, it's very much like putting on my cover letter, ‘You don't have to sponsor me.’ I have work authorization that should be kicking [in] by June 1, just because I'm banking on it,” she told VOA.

OPT legally allows college graduates with student visas to stay in the United States and work in their field of study for up to three years.

Azeem, a former intern at VOA, explained that though the executive order does not affect students like her, it adds to the anxiety.

“I get the news alert that [President Donald] Trump is going to come up with an executive order to temporarily ban immigration, I'm just, like, ‘What do I do? ... Can I stay? What's going to happen?’ ” she said.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency responsible for administering the nation's legal immigration system, offices will reopen on June 4, but the USCIS staff has continued to perform duties that do not involve face-to-face contact with the public.

'Absolute unmitigated disaster'

For more than a month, the U.S. government has stopped processing all nonimmigrant visas, flights have been canceled, immigration offices are closed and schools are hosting their classes online.

Rebecca Hamlin, graduate admissions chair at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said concerns have been ongoing about international students since no one can apply to enter the country, even students already accepted at U.S. institutions.

“We've been having calls about this and conversations about this for the past month, about whether or not the students that we had admitted for fall 2020 are going to be able to come. And so far, we just don't know the answer,” she said.

Hamlin said having an executive order covering nonimmigrant visas is an “absolute unmitigated disaster for higher education in this country.”

The higher education industry in the U.S. faced documented evidence of daunting competition from other countries in 2018 that offer lower tuition, immigration pathways and less controversy for international students.

Online publication Inside Higher Ed reports an estimated 15 percent drop in overall student enrollment in the next academic year, including a 25 percent decline in international student enrollment. The findings could mean a loss of $23 billion in revenue.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that even though colleges are taking steps to offset deep revenue losses, universities have furloughed hundreds of employees and announced revenue hits of more than $100 million. Small campuses may suffer the most or not recover at all from the financial challenges of COVID-19.

According to the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) annual Open Doors report, there were 1.1 million international students (5.5 percent of all students) among 19.8 million total students in institutions of higher education in the U.S. for the 2018-19 school year.

China sent the most students — 369,548, or 33.7 percent of all foreign students. India sent 202,014, the second-largest number, or 18.4 percent of all foreign students.

“One of the unfortunate aspects of this is that we can't even offer a remote option for students whose student visa has not been processed in time,” Hamlin said. “Because even though they would not be physically trying to enter the United States, if they were taking classes remotely from their home country, they can't be an officially enrolled student and take classes for a grade until their student visa has been processed.”

After OPT

Azeem said she hopes the work the USCIS staff is doing during the COVID-19 crisis means her OPT application will be finalized by June.

“After OPT, I'm really hoping I will work as much as I can to make sure that I am continually employed under OPT. Then, after gaining work experience, I'm able to apply for an H-1B next year,” she said.

An H-1B visa allows for temporary employment among nonimmigrants. Immigration lawyers say becoming an H-1B holder is a natural progression for international students.

Rosanna Berardi, an immigration lawyer from Buffalo, New York, said most of her clients who applied for H-1B visas were international students.

“They are really going to be shut out, because if you're not able to get an H-1B after your student status expires, you have to return to your home country,” she said.

According to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), students who are not able to keep their visa status have 60 days to return to their home country.

“Some have been here for six years,” Berardi said. “They did their bachelor's degree and then a master's program. … These are people that I love being in immigration because they're just chasing the American dream. They're doing it lawfully, respectfully. They're paying the government their fees. They're paying their taxes.” 

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