Jennifer Sandoval-Dancs, facing camera, with Claremont McKenna Colleges office of admission, leads … [+] an on-campus tour on Monday, April 12, 2021. The tours have resumed after being shut down last year amid the pandemic. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
The past two years have been challenging for everyone, especially U.S. universities and international students. While many people hope the Fall 2021 semester will bring a return to normalcy on college campuses, the world and Covid-19 may have other plans. To better understand the multitude of issues facing universities, employers and international students, I interviewed Kenneth Reade, director of international student and scholar services at University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Dan Berger, a partner at Curran, Berger & Kludt.
Stuart Anderson: How challenging is it for students to obtain visas today?
Kenneth Reade: In the university community, we face a “double-whammy” of pent-up demand for U.S. consular visa appointments: Not only this year’s newly admitted class but most of the international students admitted in 2020 who were not able to make it to the United States last fall or this spring. International students are seeking appointments, and we wish we could provide more reassurance at this anxious moment.
One bit of breaking news illustrates the situation. The State Department on April 30th announced a presidential proclamation barring most people coming to the United States from India, which raised questions and sparked fear among Indian students already facing a fraught time with the Covid-19 situation there. Hours later, the State Department clarified that students would be exempt. It’s very positive that the State Department is listening to the international education community. In this world of lighting social media communication, it would have alleviated more concerns if the clarification had been issued at the same time as the proclamation.
Dan Berger: It has been a busy time with lots of news. The new proclamation on India highlights the uncertainty. We do not know how the Covid-19 situation in India will affect U.S consular operations, or if the State Department will consider more interview waivers to keep cases moving. Everything is in flux. Just last week, the U.S. consulates in Russia cut back to emergency services, and there are hints that U.S. consulates in China may offer more appointments for students.
Despite this uncertainty, we are slowly seeing glimmers of hope. The State Department just issued updated guidance that students in all countries with Covid-19 travel bans (UK, Ireland, the Schengen area, Iran, Brazil and China) will be eligible for “national interest exemptions.” But at the same time, most countries in the world are now under a travel advisory, meaning travel for a visa appointment is uncertain. We still do not have clear guidance about how the travel bans apply to the spouses and children of students or more generally for scholars and staff.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) has also rolled out an online version of the student work authorization (OPT) application, which seems to be very gradually cutting processing times to help graduates start jobs on time. But the in-person biometrics requirements for changes of status (for example for those working in H-1B status who go back to school and prefer not to travel abroad during the pandemic) makes those applications move glacially slow.
Anderson: What is the current policy on international students and in-person and remote learning at U.S. universities?
Reade: The April 26 updated guidance from SEVP (Student and Exchange Visitor Program) confirming the extension of existing guidance for the entire 2021-22 academic year is very helpful because it has come early. Last year we did not get guidance until the last minute, making it extremely difficult to advise international students. We appreciate being able to continue Covid-19-related “flexibility,” including being able to issue I-20 immigration documents electronically and letting currently enrolled F-1 students stay outside of the U.S. beyond five months while maintaining their underlying F-1 immigration status. The ability for individual campuses to classify themselves with SEVP as hybrid, fully remote, or fully in-person allows significant leeway depending on each school’s operational capacities and local Covid-19 conditions.
The current guidance does not force a hard return to in-person classes for international students. But even as our campuses move back in that direction, I foresee increasing complications. Zoom isn’t going away, and the line between in-person and online instruction is now perhaps irreversibly blurred. The resumption of standard F-1 regulations without temporary guidance exceptions will make advising F-1 students even more challenging in the future now that online instructional delivery is bound to continue in some form.
Berger: Yes, unfortunately, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program has offered essentially no updated guidance regarding student work programs, such as Optional Practical Training or Curricular Practical Training (CPT) for students currently stranded abroad. It does not make sense to require students to fly to the U.S. to file their OPT applications when the students are allowed to study remotely from their home country.
Anderson: What advice do you have for international students?
Reade: It’s easier said than done, but international students, especially new admits who have yet to secure an F-1 visa, need to try to remain as patient and flexible as possible, and know that their institutions in the U.S. support them fully and sincerely empathize with their concerns.
They should try to avoid the temptation to be distracted by online and social media “advice,” and instead rely on your U.S. institution’s guidance. Also, grab any type of U.S. consular appointment that may be available just to get into the State Department’s appointment booking system, even if the date is unrealistically far in the future (we’ve already had some new students offered consular appointment bookings for early 2022!).
The State Department is working on a plan to prioritize student visa processing for the fall. But we know it’s hard for students who are planning their lives and their move to wait—especially because last summer many did not make it to America.
Anderson: What advice do you have for university administrators?
Berger: Continue to be active in supporting international students through advocacy, and, if necessary, court challenges. Such efforts are still needed even with a new administration. Stephen Yale-Loehr, a Cornell Law School professor, shares this goal in a recent article. Advocate for more guidance and a positive message for international students, for a path to long-term status for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), TPS (Temporary Protected Status) and undocumented students, for the ability of refugees to attend U.S. colleges, and for increased consular services abroad so students can come to our campuses.
Reade: Listen to your senior international officers and include them in every aspect of fall campus planning, even if some of that planning is not necessarily “international” in nature. Remember that even though Covid-19 rates are declining in the United States and vaccinations are increasing, that is not the case in most of the world. Covid-19 conditions worldwide will continue to hamper U.S. consular operations, and fall international enrollment will continue to be negatively impacted as a result.
Anderson: Have you been pleased with Biden administration policies that affect international students?
Reade: I think it’s fair to say that most, if not all, immigration practitioners are relieved by the positive tone of the Biden Administration’s policies on immigration. I will say, however, that there is a remaining sense of exhaustion at trying to keep up with the updates to advise our international students. Similar to policy directives during the Trump Administration, Biden’s new policies are equally challenging—albeit in a very different way— since absorbing the updates often leads to more questions.
Anderson: What else would you like to see the Biden administration do?
Berger: We would like to see more guidance based on back-and-forth communication, such as to:
1) Continue the very welcomed trend of setting visa policies at U.S. consulates abroad based on the public health situation there, and updating policies as the Covid-19 situation evolves, but keep open to ways to avoid in person services in countries where the pandemic is spiking.
2) Expand the “special student relief” granted recently to students from two countries in dire situations—Syria and Venezuela—to support all students during the pandemic (at least through the end of 2021).
3) Continue issuing clarifying FAQs (frequently asked questions) on the Student and Exchange Visitor Program guidance about the flexibility schools have to support international students abroad or taking online classes during the pandemic. Uncertainty can be difficult and discouraging for international students. More communication will help move beyond the fear that lingers from last year.
4) Revive high-level communication between the government and higher education by bringing back the Homeland Security Academic Advisory Council.
Reade: I would like to see progressive reform to student visa regulations be decoupled from the larger debate over “comprehensive immigration reform.” Immigration has sadly become such a toxic political football that lumping international education regulatory reform together with all of the other critical but highly contentious immigration issues such as border security, asylum and refugees, DACA, etc., can be a recipe for policy stagnation.
Reforming international student policies should instead be presented for what they are: an undeniable national economic benefit crucial to competing for the world’s most talented individuals. Over the years, whenever I have spoken with members of Congress and their staff about international education issues, there is near-unanimous support, regardless of one’s side of the aisle. And it’s because the issue is ultimately a local one.
The significant economic impact to the district and state that international students bring speaks for itself whether it be tuition revenue or the high-skilled jobs created by our international graduates through startups and other local business development. International education touches on so many areas that are often not linked together: the economy, national security, public diplomacy, education and the labor market, to name a few.
We have a golden opportunity to take international student policy to the next level with the Biden Administration. It needs to be driven steadily and confidently by facts and data about the value of international students, and with the aim of removing regulatory impediments for students. We need to continue to welcome the world’s most talented young minds to this country for education, and reward them with an opportunity to contribute to American society and the economy.