The Trump administration proposed a new rule on Thursday that would prevent students from certain countries from staying in the U.S. for more than two years, likely barring them from completing four-year degrees.
Under the Department of Homeland Security proposal, F-1 visas for students and J-1 visas for researchers, scholars, and other exchange roles will be given a strict four-year timeline, regardless of program or purpose. (Currently, these visa-holders can stay in the country for the duration of their programs.) If a visa-holder needs more time to complete their program, there are minimal exceptions that allow for an extension, including a documented illness, a natural disaster, or inability to take required classes due to over-enrollment. The proposal also reduces the amount of time students can stay in the U.S. after completing their program from 60 to 30 days and limits the number of times students can change majors or transfer schools. It’s not clear what happens to visa-holders, such as foreign medical residents, whose programs often require more than four years to complete.
But the proposed rules are even harsher for some: They bar students from 59 countries—many among what President Donald Trump once referred to as “shithole countries”—from staying in the country longer than two years, regardless of program and visa type. Four of the countries—Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Sudan—are on the state sponsors of terrorism list. Students born in these countries, regardless of where they grew up, are automatically limited to two years. The rest are countries that have a 10 percent or greater U.S. visa overstay rate. Thirty-six of those are in Africa.
In a statement, acting DHS Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said that changing the current regulations is crucial to “preventing foreign adversaries from exploiting the country’s education environment” and properly enforcing U.S. immigration laws.
But according to data from DHS, F-1- and J-1 visas make up only 3 percent of overstays. And according to a report from NAFSA, an association of international educators, the 1.1 million international students enrolled in U.S. colleges contributed more than $41 billion to the U.S. economy in 2019.
Most international students come from China, accounting for 33.7 percent of total enrollment, with India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Canada rounding out the top five. Vietnam, Nigeria, Nepal, and Iran would be the most affected countries under the new proposal, according to data from OpenDoors. Since 2015, international student enrollment in the U.S. has fallen by 10 percent, which analysts have attributed in part to sharper immigration restrictions by the Trump administration. The change also threatens to exacerbate the coronavirus-driven budget crisis already threatening many higher education institutions.
This isn’t the first time the Trump administration has targeted students and exchange visitors or visa overstays. In July, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced international students must take in-person classes to remain in the country, even though most universities had moved classes online due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Harvard and MIT filed a lawsuit to block the restrictions, and the administration rescinded the policy.) That same month, foreign journalists working at Voice of America were told their J-1 visas would not be renewed when they expired, some as early as that month. And last year, the White House ordered the secretaries of state and the homeland security to implement punishments for countries with visitor visa overstay rates of more than 10 percent, targeting mostly Africa and Asia.
A 30-day public comment period opens to the public beginning Friday. Although it’s unclear when the rule could take effect, the Trump administration has little time to finalize the rule before the election. But with the U.S. being the top destination for international students, it’s certain this rule would send shock waves across U.S. higher education institutions and those who aspire to study on their campuses.