Trump administration proposes new restriction on student visas

Flags along the Iowa Memorial footbridge, representing the countries from which UI draws its students. Oct. 19, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The Trump administration plans to make a major change to student visas, according to a notice published in the Federal Register on Wednesday. Instead of student visas being valid for “duration of status” — that is, for as long as the visa holders are full-time students and meet other requirements — there would be a fixed “maximum period of authorized stay,” with options for extension that are currently unspecified.

“The failure to provide certain categories of nonimmigrants with specific dates for their authorized periods of stay can cause confusion over how long they may lawfully remain in the United States and has complicated the efforts to reduce overstay rates for nonimmigrant students,” according to the Department of Homeland Security’s “Statement of Need” in the notice.

Publication of such a notice in the Federal Register is the first step in the federal rules-making process. The next step will likely be a mandatory analysis on the costs and benefits of the proposed change. The notice states the analysis is currently being conducted by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Inside Higher Ed reported, “Advocates for international exchange are worried … that the introduction of such a rule could limit flexibility for international students and scholars and undercut efforts by U.S. universities to recruit them.”

Enrollment by international students at colleges nationwide has declined over the past two years, after steadily increasing since 2007. The drop in international students at Iowa’s three public universities has been dramatic, with enrollment down by 18 percent, since reaching a record high of 8,777 at the beginning of the 2015-16 academic year.

According to a study by the nonprofit NAFSA: Association of International Educators, international students attending Iowa’s colleges and universities contributed $378.5 million to the state’s economy during the 2016-17 academic year. NAFSA estimates such students added $36.9 billion to the overall national economy during the same period.

But the impact of having international students on Iowa’s campuses goes beyond just their economic impact, as Jeneane Beck, UI’s assistant vice president for external relations, explained to the Press-Citizen in 2017.

“Recruiting and retaining a diverse student body, including international students, is so integral to the University of Iowa that it is part of the university’s strategic plan,” Beck said. “Providing a variety of perspectives and experiences enriches the educational experience for all students and better prepares them for the future.”

UI has seen the largest percentage decline in international students among Iowa’s three public universities, with a drop of 26 percent since the fall of 2015. Other countries, such as Canada, have begun to heavily promote themselves as more welcoming alternatives to the United States under the Trump administration.

“It’s going to be increasingly challenging environment to attract international students to our campus,” Downing Thomas, associate provost and dean of U of I’s International Programs, explained to the Des Moines Register earlier this month.

This week, as part of UI’s Homecoming celebrations, the university has been displaying the flags of the 116 countries represented in the school’s student body along the Iowa Memorial footbridge. This the first year for the display, but UI said it plans to make “Bridging Our World” an annual event.

This week’s proposed rule change isn’t the only student visa-related news the Trump administration has made recently. At the beginning of October, The Financial Times reported that a White House faction hostile to immigration, led by presidential adviser Stephen Miller, had been pushing to completely end the issuing of visas to students from China.


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The debate about Chinese students intensified after the White House in December released its national security strategy, which said it would “review visa procedures to reduce economic theft by non-traditional intelligence collectors” and consider restrictions on foreign students in science-related fields.

While the debate was largely focused on spying, Mr Miller argued his plan would also hurt elite universities whose staff and students have been highly critical of Mr Trump, according to the three people with knowledge of the debate.

It would have also hurt Iowa. Students from China make up the largest group of international students at UI, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. At UI, they account for 1,743 of the school’s 3,056 international students.

According to the Times, Miller’s proposal was dropped after a strong pushback from Terry Branstad, who resigned as governor of Iowa in 2017 to become U.S. ambassador to China.

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