This piece was originally published by Next100, a startup think tank powered by The Century Foundation and created for—and by—the next generation of policy leaders.
Did you know that Barack Obama’s father, and both of Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris’s parents, were international students? From these two examples alone, it is clear that international students have made history and advanced democracy in the United States.
And they are far from alone in that work. International students contribute tremendously to the United States’ economy, education, and cultural diversity. Yet, regardless of their immense contributions, international students have been mostly neglected by America’s outdated immigration policies. Furthermore, during the last four years, the Trump administration has taken aim at international students, forcing them to look elsewhere to invest their skills and talents. These actions have resulted in a 43 percent decline of new enrollments of international students in the fall of the 2020–2021 academic year. This is not only unjust, but also counterproductive, and will harm the United States’ future. America is rapidly losing skills and talents that could benefit so many communities across the nation. We must reverse this trend.
While there will be a lot on the incoming Biden–Harris administration’s plate, acting quickly to protect, re-attract, and retain international students will be a crucial part of their early efforts. That is why I have put together the following recommendations that the Biden–Harris administration should implement to make America a welcoming environment for international students again.
1. Ensure that all higher education students, including international students, are covered under the CARES Act.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit college and university students hard. Students are reporting delays in graduation, losing jobs or job offers, a decrease in their study hours and academic performance, and even dropping out of school. In April, Secretary Betsy Devos issued guidance that excludes undocumented and international students from receiving emergency financial assistance through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. However, the specific language of the CARES Act does not exclude any students from receiving financial relief due to their citizenship status; this was a policy decision by the outgoing administration. Recently, several federal judges in California, Washington, and Massachusetts have ruled against the secretary’s guidance, including her decision to exclude undocumented and international students from receiving this financial aid through the CARES Act. The Biden–Harris administration should immediately roll back this guidance and issue new guidance that makes it clear that all students, including undocumented and international students, are eligible for emergency financial aid through the CARES Act.
2. Rescind the Department of Homeland Security’s “fixed-period of stay” rule.
In September 2020, the Department of Homeland Security, under the Trump administration, released a new proposed rule that seeks to limit how long international students can remain in the United States. The rule calls for establishing a fixed period of stay for all international students. International students who might want to stay longer than the permitted duration may file for an extension; however, it is not guaranteed that they will receive such an extension. The rule specifically targets international students from fifty-nine African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries, and would limit their student visas to just two years—ultimately preventing them from attaining a four-year bachelor’s degree in the United States. This rule would penalize hundreds of thousands of international students who are currently in the country, and discourage tens of thousands of future international students from coming here. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have strongly rejected this rule, with over 125 bipartisan lawmakers weighing in against the rule. The Biden–Harris administration must prioritize rescinding this rule in the first 100 days of a new administration. It has not yet gone into effect, so quick action can ensure international students are not impacted by this harmful policy.
3. Rescind U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s guidance that prevents international students from entering the United States to pursue a course of study that is online-only.
In July 2020, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attempted to remove all international students who are engaged in online-only courses from the country. However, the Trump administration rescinded that rule when it was challenged in court by multiple colleges. Immediately after, ICE issued another rule that prevents international students from coming to the United States to enroll in colleges and universities that are operating virtually only—despite the fact that universities were taking steps to do so because of, and in the depths of, the COVID-19 crisis, for the safety of students, educators, and communities. These kinds of actions will continue to push the skills and talents of international students away from the United States and give an economic edge to our global competitors. The Biden administration should quickly rescind this rule and encourage international students who left to return and finish their education in the United States, whether online or in-person.
4. Dismantle Operation OPTical Illusion.
In October of 2020, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced phase one of Operation OPTical Illusion, a major effort to remove international students from the country. The Department of Homeland Security decided to revoke or not to renew 1,100 Optional Practical Training (OPT) permits that were already granted to international students, and who DHS claims are involved in fraud. According to DHS officials, the definition of fraud in these cases includes students working in areas unrelated to their areas of study. OPT is a temporary work permit that allows international students to work in the United States. It requires international students to work only in areas related to their major. This was another effort of the Trump administration’s efforts to crack down on and limit OPT, which the administration had previously threatened to suspend.
The Biden–Harris administration must make sure that it does not penalize or scare innocent international students for actions taken by the very few who might break the law.
Operation OPTical Illusion could have a chilling effect on new enrollments of international students, and/or encourage graduating students to leave the country more quickly. While making sure that all international students abide by all legal requirements, the Biden administration must end this operation, and all other scare tactics and uses of selective enforcement, that might scare international students away from the United States. The Biden–Harris administration must make sure that it does not penalize or scare innocent international students for actions taken by the very few who might break the law.
5. Extend the duration of OPT and STEM OPT.
As noted above, OPT allows international students to stay and work in the United States when they have completed their studies. STEM OPT is a temporary work permit specifically for international students with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics degrees. In 2012, President Obama expanded STEM OPT to include international students with degrees in computer science.
As of today, STEM OPT gives international students up to twenty-four months to stay and work in the country, with the potential for a five-month extension. Regular OPT allows students to stay for twelve months. The Biden–Harris administration should act to extend the duration of both regular and STEM OPT, to allow students to remain and work for longer. OPT should be extended from twelve to twenty-four months, while STEM OPT should be extended to allow for up to thirty-six months. OPT, and STEM OPT, applicants have to be working, or seeking employment, in order to maintain their status, and that should remain the case.
6. Reduce international student visa fees.
Right now, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) charges $320 for F and M student visas, and $220 for the J exchange visa. (F, M, and J visas are the three visa categories that allow international students to come here to study.) That is a substantial amount of money, one which many students might not have the resources to pay. The Biden–Harris administration should reduce these fees to encourage more foreign students to enroll in our colleges and universities. For example, the F and M visas should be reduced to $220 and $120 for the J visa.
7. Expedite and clarify visa processing times for international students.
The Department of Homeland Security must establish a system that allows for predictable visa processing times for international students. This would allow international students to know exactly when they can arrive in the United States and start their school year without any hiccups. Currently, many international students are facing long delays after they apply for their student visa. These delays have forced some international students to start their course load later than their fellow classmates, creating unnecessary academic challenges. Such delays have contributed to the steep decline of new enrollments of international students, adding a tremendous amount of pressure anxiety before they even enter the country. The Biden–Harris administration should implement a new system and use the latest technologies available to create a consistent timeline and expedite processing times.
8. Conduct an annual study of the economic contributions of international students.
While international students have enjoyed bipartisan praise for their economic contributions to the U.S. economy, the recent actions of the Trump administration have shown they can easily become a target—and that we need to do more to understand their contributions. To date, there has never been a federal effort to track these contributions. Moving forward, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) under the Biden–Harris administration should publish an annual study that focuses on the economic contributions of current, and former, international students. This will help lawmakers to evaluate, and better inform the public on the extent of the impact international students have on our economy and workforce, as well as ensure our policies are informed by data on where and how international students are most likely to contribute.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) under the Biden–Harris administration should publish an annual study that focuses on the economic contributions of current, and former, international students, to better inform lawmakers and the public on the extent of the impact international students have on our economy and workforce.
From strengthening our economy and educational quality to paving the way for the first Black president and female vice-president of the United States, the contributions of international students are immense. We need to modernize our policies in order to re-attract, and retain, international students.