In the Trump administration’s latest move to restrict immigration, the Department of Homeland Security proposed fixed time limits for international students, marking one of the biggest policy shifts in the past two decades.
On Sept. 25, the federal agency announced plans to limit the duration of all student visas, stating that the change would “encourage program compliance, reduce fraud and enhance national security.” The move would change current policy that allows these visitors to remain in the country indefinitely so long as they follow the “terms of admission.”
The proposed plan would crack down on overstays by requiring international students to apply for extensions to complete their degrees after the date stipulated on their visas — usually after four years. And extensions would not necessarily be guaranteed, even though most first-time college students take more than five years to earn a bachelor’s degree, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
The four year limit also doesn’t include more flexibility for graduate programs — which can often take up to ten years to complete. Under this guideline, international Ph.D. candidates could have to reapply as many as five times, with no certainty that they would be issued an extension.
“So many people come to the United States with the hopes of getting educational opportunities that they wouldn’t have gotten in their own countries,” said Ysabella Vistan ’23, an international student from the Philippines. “This proposal is devastating and would shatter so many future plans and dreams.”
The new rule would make circumstances even more precarious for international students. And Vistan said that she thought this new rule would prompt international students to think twice about applying to U.S. universities because of that uncertainty.
Under the policy, students from over 50 countries could be excluded from four-year programs. Instead, they would only be granted two-year visas — the goal to ostensibly restrict the number of visa overstays. The two-year limitation applies to countries that have been named as having an overstay rate of over 10 percent or are on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List, including much of the African continent.
At Cornell, this could include as many as 200 total undergraduate, graduate and professional students, according to fall 2019 data.
“No one wants to go to their dream college and live in fear that they could be kicked out at any moment,” Vista said. Her home country of the Philippines would be affected by the proposed rule.
“The rule would constitute the largest changes to international students and scholars in 20 years,” said Prof. Steven Yale-Loehr, law, who focuses particularly on immigration and asylum law.
The DHS decided to take this course of action because of potential threat to national security and the possibility of fraud, according to Yale-Loehr. But he sees it as emblematic of broader trends surrounding immigration and international students.
“International students have been under scrutiny for many years, particularly since the 2001 terrorist attacks, after which all international students had to participate in a computer system called [Student and Exchange Visitor Information System],” Yale-Loehr said.
“The department’s claim that we need to have more regulations of international students is false,” he continued, “we already adequately supervise international students and I do not see any reason to go further.”
At Cornell, international students are a large portion of the student body, constituting 11 percent of undergraduates, 51 percent of graduates and 34 percent of professional students.
After the DHS announcement, Cornell wrote to international students that this modification would be a “significant one for international students and scholars.”
While the University has made no further comments, their email said they would “continue to advocate on behalf of international students.” They also encouraged students to submit comments to the DHS that will ultimately be considered before a final decision.
This proposal came not long after the directive issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement this summer, which would have banned international students from remaining in the U.S. if they took a fully online course load. Although this was eventually rescinded, except for new students, international students have been unsure of their position in the U.S. since.
“After the ICE ruling in the summer, I am not completely surprised by this,” said Sophie Openshaw ’23, an international student from Hong Kong. “I am still optimistic that people will fight for us like they did in the summer; however, if this continues, I do not see myself staying in America after I graduate from Cornell.”
The rule has a 30-day comment period, which means that as of now, students and institutions have until Oct. 26 to submit comments against this policy, before this sweeping change alters the fate of international students in the United States.