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New threat to international students and our future

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As the election, the pandemic, and the economy dominate the news, the Trump administration once again has announced plans to change the rules for international students. This latest change threatens to harm American higher education and U.S. ties with the rest of the world for years to come by radically restricting the ability of international students to stay continuously in the U.S. for the duration of the degree.

Under current rules, international students with the most common types of visas can stay in the U.S until they complete their academic programs, as long as they comply with federal regulations and already-rigorous reporting requirements.

The new proposed rules, released without fanfare late last month and with a looming deadline for public comment, introduce uncertainty by limiting stays to four years or, in some cases, two years, and create new costs and bureaucratic hurdles for students. They will also add to significant existing immigration backlogs. Finally, in some cases, the new time limits simply do not match the duration of academic programs, a reality sure to place students in a bind.

The rationale for the proposed change is unclear. The existing system is extensive in its background checks, and in the rigor with which students are evaluated both by institutions and by the U.S. government. No evidence has been presented to show why qualified students’ access to colleges across the nation should be restricted. These institutions give them skills to strengthen our own business, manufacturing, educational and not-for-profit sectors, and also, should they return to their home countries, to boost international productivity and increase global resiliency to shocks like the current pandemic.

International students in the U.S. also learn more about core democratic values — the importance of open discussion, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and the right to protest — just as their presence helps American students learn more about other cultures.

The proposed rules also are disturbing in that they target students from particular nations, constraining one of the core principles of American higher education: that finding talent requires seeking it without prejudice.

More than this, the proposal comes at the worst possible moment, as students, as well as colleges and universities, adapt their work to respond to COVID-19.

These rules are the latest salvo in a deeply misguided campaign targeting students from outside the U.S. In July, after ICE proposed another unreasonable rule barring international students from entering the U.S. while their colleges are online due to COVID-19, it took swift legal action by colleges and universities before the government backed down. The ultimate impact of these ongoing attacks will be to discourage international students from coming here, reducing the vitality of American higher education and, over time, harming our economy and our society.

In sharp contrast, nations such as Australia, Canada and the U.K. see the clear benefits of international students and offer more attractive immigration policies to draw them.

The countless challenges we face, from the pandemic to climate change, call for greater U.S. ties and cooperation with the wider world. Once again, we’ll need to speak up — in Congress, in the courts, and to the public — to explain why America, still known as the world leader in knowledge production, needs more than America to be strong.

G. Gabrielle Starr is president of Pomona College in Southern California. Katherine E. Fleming is the provost of NYU.

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