International students may have to renew visas yearly

A change to foreign student visa policies being discussed at the United States Department of Homeland Security would require international students to reapply annually for permission to stay in the United States, according to the Washington Post.

The change being discussed would attach an end date to a student’s study programme. Under current federal regulations, a foreign student’s immigration status is valid as long as he or she is enrolled in college or university and follows the rules. Students can transfer from one educational institution to another and many remain in the country for years without having to reapply, the Post said.

The proposal also would require students to reapply for permission to stay in the United States if they move from one programme to another, such as from undergraduate to graduate school. Foreign students who need more time to complete their studies could also be required to apply for an extension.

Foreign students pay a one-time fee of about US$200, but that could change if the proposal moves forward, the Post reported.

The Post noted that the idea, far from being a done deal, would require regulatory changes, which could take at least 18 months.

Citing two unnamed Department of Homeland Security or DHS officials, the Post said the proposal was prompted by concerns that current federal regulations for student visas are too open-ended.

A DHS report released last month found that students were among those most likely to overstay their visa. An estimated 2.8% of the more than 1.4 million student and exchange visa holders in 2016 overstayed their visas, more than double the national average for visitors.

DHS spokesman David Lapan confirmed to the Post that the agency “is exploring a variety of measures that would ensure that our immigration programmes – including programmes for international students studying in the United States – operate in a manner that promotes the national interest, enhances national security and public safety and ensures the integrity of our immigration system”.

The change, if implemented, could be expensive for universities and would likely dissuade more foreign students from studying in the United States.

Enrolment trends

The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments this autumn on a Trump administration plan to ban travel to the United States from six Muslim-majority countries.

A recently released survey of 112 US colleges and universities by the Institute of International Education found that undergraduate enrolment trends for autumn 2017 remain steady, while a similar survey by the Council of Graduate Schools found that nearly half of deans of graduate schools reported declines in the number of accepted students who have committed to attend.

More than 1 million foreign students were earning academic credit in the United States in 2015, and jointly contributed more than US$35 billion to the US economy, according to the Institute of International Education, a non-profit organisation in New York.

DHS was established in 2002, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, to coordinate federal efforts to protect homeland security. Some of the attackers had used student visas to gain entry into the United States but never showed up on campus.

Now, DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement tracks foreign students through its Student and Exchange Visitor Program. Institutions that host international students are required to monitor and report on the status of those students' enrolments through the Student and Exchange Visitor Program.

Enrolments in US universities dipped slightly in the years after the attack but have returned to record levels.

The new DHS plan, as described by the Post, was called "duplicative and unnecessary" by Jill Welch, deputy executive director for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators. She and other higher education groups also stressed the value international students contribute to the United States, including campus diversity, expertise in certain fields and billions of dollars to the economy.

“Generations of foreign policy leaders agree that international students are an asset to our nation, not a threat," she said in a statement. "We urge the Department of Homeland Security to consult carefully with stakeholders like NAFSA who have worked for decades to protect our security and increase our economic prosperity before making any rash decisions that can have potentially irreversible consequences.”

Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesperson for the Association of American Universities and a former deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration and a former assistant director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, called the policy “both a policy and logistical nightmare” for students, universities and the federal government, the Post reported.