Biden brings hope for international students
High school seniors anxiously wait for their college acceptances this month amid a pandemic that has left great uncertainties over the next chapter of their lives. International student applicants are particular worried, as they face a unique set of challenges.
Alleviating their concerns is particularly important to the United States, which hosts more international students than any other country in the world. Over one million international students contribute nearly $41 billion to the U.S. economy each year, support over 458,000 jobs, and pay top dollar so that universities can maintain high-tech programs and keep tuition low for American students. Despite these contributions, the Trump administration and COVID-19 left international students scrambling.
If the Biden administration does not prioritize changes for this key group, international students and the U.S. economy will suffer.
Impact of Trump and COVID-19
While the number of international students in the United States increased by 80 percent from 2006 to 2016, the decline in enrollment after Donald Trump’s election in 2016 cost the U.S. economy $11.8 billion and over 65,000 jobs.
Throughout his tenure, President Trump sought to restrict international students’ ability to study and work in the United States. For example, Trump threatened to end work opportunities for international students after they graduate and accused international students of engaging in espionage and intellectual property theft.
Trump also attacked H-1B temporary work visas, which many international students rely on after they graduate, by dramatically increasing requests for evidence (RFEs) and quadrupling H-1B denial rates.
COVID-19 added to international students’ concerns. Embassy closures, travel restrictions, long delays in work permit approvals, and anti-Asian sentiment contributed to confusion and panic among international students.
As a result, Fall 2020 saw a 72 percent decrease in new international student enrollment. Nearly 40,000 students from 700 institutions deferred enrollment, while one in five students logged into classes from another country. The decline led to a loss of $1.8 billion and 42,000 jobs in the 2019–2020 academic year.
The Biden bump
Biden’s election was a pivotal moment for international students. Universities are already seeing a spike in international student applications, a phenomenon coined “the Biden bump.”
A survey of 800 prospective international students from 40 countries found that 76 percent had improved perceptions of the United States, and 67 percent said they were now more likely to apply to American universities.
Despite President Biden’s welcoming stance towards international students, institutions could face another lost year if visa processing issues are not resolved. As of last month, only 18 percent of U.S. consular posts were operating at full capacity. The COVID-related travel bans also prevent students from Europe, the United Kingdom, China, and Brazil from directly entering the United States. Even if visa processing resumes, the huge backlog of applications will likely cause significant delays.
The Biden administration should do the following to attract international students, provide predictability, and allow universities and employers to retain global talent:
- Biden should direct the appropriate agencies to formally withdraw proposed Trump-era rules that would harm international students if implemented, including ones that would limit student visas to a fixed number of years and discourage employers from sponsoring students for H-1B visas. Biden should also direct Immigration and Customs Enforcement to update its guidance so that new international students can study in the United States even if they are doing so online.
- The Biden administration should give international students priority for visa appointments, waive the in-person visa interview requirement, and establish a system that tracks visa processing times.
- As Biden proposed in his U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, F-1 students should be allowed to have “dual intent” and apply for green cards immediately after graduating instead of having to rely on the H-1B temporary visa lottery.
- H-1B visas should return to lower rates of denials and RFEs, with RFEs being more specific in their requests. Furthermore, the USCIS should reinstate prior policy granting deference to applicants with previous H-1B approvals. Biden should also ask Congress to raise the annual H-1B cap. The current cap of 85,000 visas is far too low for the nearly 275,000 registrations the USCIS received this month.
- The DHS should reestablish the Homeland Security Academic Advisory Council (HSAAC). Composed of higher education representatives, the HSAAC can communicate international student concerns to the DHS.
Stephen Yale-Loehr is Professor of Immigration Law Practice at Cornell Law School and of counsel at Miller Mayer LLP in Ithaca, N.Y. He thanks Ayumi Berstein, a third-year student at Cornell Law School, for her assistance. Follow him on Twitter @syaleloehr