Experts warn Trump treatment of international students hurts U.S.

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The Trump administration’s course reversal on allowing international students to stay in the U.S. and take classes online was a victory for universities and advocacy groups that had condemned the initial policy proposal.

But a week of chaos following the policy announcement has put a spotlight on larger problems surrounding a declining international student body, with experts warning the trend has both immediate and long-term consequences for the U.S.

International students contribute an estimated $41 billion to the economy and support half a million jobs. And while 1.1 million foreign students are currently studying in the U.S., that represents an 11 percent decline since 2016. 

“That’s not insignificant,” said Rachel Banks, senior director for public policy and legislative strategy with NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Universities and colleges report that prospective international students say the social and political environment have left them feeling unwelcome in the U.S., and is discouraging them from pursuing studies here, according to a recent report by NAFSA. 

“You have to look at a number of policies and proclamations and rhetoric that has come out of this administration,” Banks said, “that are essentially making international students feel less welcome and feel less safe about coming to the United States.”

The Department of Homeland Security last week came under a firestorm of criticism, and was taken to court, for issuing a temporary rule that international students whose university classes move online will not be allowed to remain in the U.S.

On Tuesday, the department responded to a lawsuit by 17 states and the District of Columbia that it would return to its guidance from March that allowed universities more flexibility in moving classes online over the health risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Foreign students, universities and advocates breathed a sigh of relief with the reversal but warned the administration’s actions were damaging nonetheless. 

“While this is a positive outcome, we cannot ignore the damage inflicted by the perception of the July 6 guidance,” Esther Brimmer, NAFSA’s executive director and CEO, said in a statement.

“The administration was willing, until this guidance was rescinded, to force international students to choose between maintaining legal immigration status and what is best for their health and safety.”

The White House, Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to requests from The Hill for comment. 

Foreign students are viewed as a key element of the United States’ “soft diplomacy” who are likely to establish long-lasting ties in the U.S. and with Americans, influencing future global relations and new business.

The actions by the administration now are likely to influence how the next generation of leaders view the U.S. 

“These are the people who are benefiting us now and in many, many ways will benefit us in the future,” said Michele Bond, former assistant secretary for consular affairs at the State Department in the Obama administration.

“We’re going out of our way to turn them into people who remember their time in the States with frustration and anger and disappointment, without making any of us any safer or better or stronger. I think it’s indefensible.” 

The overall decline in foreign students studying in the U.S. from 2016 represents a loss of about $11.8 billion and more than 65,000 jobs, according to NAFSA.

Another key area under threat with the loss of foreign students are American STEM programs. International students account for more than 50 percent of students studying in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and their tuition makes it easier for domestic students to take advantage of those course offerings. 

“Without international students being on campus pursuing those courses, many domestic students would not be able to pursue course offerings in those fields,” Banks, of NAFSA, said. 

But enrollment is declining in these fields — a drop of 10.7 percent between 2016 and 2018 in graduate engineering programs and an 8.5 percent decline in computer science programs, according to data from the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonpartisan research institute.

Where the U.S. is losing, India and China are gaining, said Richard Burke, CEO of Envoy, a tech company that helps its clients navigate the sometimes-Byzantine U.S. immigration system.

Burke said these countries are working to provide paths for some of their students to remain in the country for their education and professional development, an area of focus where the Trump administration takes an opposite approach.

“There’s been a drumbeat of actions, all within the executive branch, making immigration more difficult for students,” Burke said.

And other developed countries are competing for the students who do decide to study internationally.

According to a survey conducted by Envoy, 74 percent of U.S. employers prefer Canada’s immigration system, 45 percent of which cite the ease of transitioning from student to work visas in Canada.

Experts say that the impact of the Trump administration’s policies, including the travel bans on some majority-Muslim countries beginning in 2017, more recent restrictions on temporary work visas and the confusion over international students, has had a detrimental effect on American universities’ ability to attract foreign students.

“Individual colleges and universities have been very proactive in reaching out to students to say, ‘We value you, we want you here, you may not be hearing the government say they want you here, but we do,’” Banks said. “They are applauded for that effort.”

But those efforts will fall flat without systematic immigration reform, said Theresa Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy with the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“Changes to the legal immigration system that both support foreign students coming to the United States and that would allow a more streamlined path to accessing the labor market after graduation would make the United States more attractive,” she said.

“Many other countries make that much easier than the United States does. But that will require legislation and probably a more comprehensive immigration reform.”

Yet that is unlikely to happen as a key focus of President Trump’s time in office and his push for reelection is focused on the threats of globalism to the U.S. and painting foreigners as taking away American jobs.

“We’ve sort of relied on what we thought was an inherent advantage, that people just want to come to the United States, for a very long time,” said Brown. “If we lose that, it could be a very long time before we gain it back.”

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