International Students Voice Opposition to Proposed Fixed-Duration Visa Rule, Limits to Student Stay Length

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unveiled a proposed rule on Sept. 24 that would modify visa regulations for international students on F-1 status, limiting the duration of their visas to two years for students from 59 countries and four years for students elsewhere before they’re required to apply for renewal, among other changes. This marks a departure from the current “duration of status” rule, which allows students to stay in the U.S. so long as they comply with the conditions of their visa. For the over 150 international students at Amherst, the proposal brings even more uncertainty as recent changes to immigration law have cast doubt on their place in the U.S.

Although the rule would likely not affect current Amherst students due to a built-in grace period that would extend legal status for eligible students for four years, it is still, for many, emblematic of a continual hostility towards international students and could jeopardize the positions of future international students. 

The proposal comes after a number of initiatives by the Trump administration aimed at curbing immigration and, more specifically, foreign students, including a travel ban on 13 predominantly Muslim-majority countries, the shutdown of H1-B work visa until Dec. 31, 2020 and a now-rescinded rule barring international students from studying remotely within the U.S. According to the DHS, the new rule is intended “to encourage program compliance, reduce fraud and enhance national security,” but the rationale has been met with significant skepticism among immigration experts. 

The DHS is currently accepting public comment on the proposal until Oct. 26, at which point it will review and then either finalize the rule for implementation or amend it.

Most notably, under the proposed rule, for those from the 59 countries limited to two years of status and for any foreign student who needs to take a leave of absence, it is possible that immigration officials could deny their request for an extension, meaning that future students could be unable to finish their degree at Amherst. Of those 59 countries, four of the countries are on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List and 55 are countries that have an over 10 percent rate for visa overstays. Most African countries are included in the list.

According to the DHS, extensions can only be approved “if the additional time needed is due to a compelling academic reason, documented medical illness or medical condition, or circumstance that was beyond the student’s control”; it added that circumstances “such as failing grades, in addition to academic probation or suspension, [are] an unacceptable reason for program extensions.”

For Arzoo Rajpar ’22, president of the International Students’ Association and an international student from Tanzania, the proposed rule tells a familiar story. “This is not the first time that we have been put in this position,” she said. “I don’t know why we keep having to justify our existence in this country but international students are not ‘stealing’ away spots for other students whether that be in college or the professional spots. We have provided a lot to this country’s economy and growth and to have our right to be here questioned over and over again is disheartening.”

Being from Tanzania, one of the countries targeted by the travel ban and among the 59 nations with a two-year status limit under the new rule, Rajpar is now reconsidering her options for the future. “I am constantly aware of the fact that my plans may not work out because of the restrictions that have been placed upon me,” she said. “I’m in my junior year, and I have to start thinking about the long term; however, H1-B [work] visas are suspended, Tanzanians are not eligible for the green card lottery and now these proposed changes may limit me even further.”

Indeed, if nothing else, the proposed rule casts a web of uncertainty for international students considering a future in the U.S. Although Bruce Tsogt ’21, an international student from Mongolia, one of the 59 countries affected by the two-year stipulation, is grateful that he will be finishing his studies before such restrictions can advance, he also expressed his concern about the situation, especially about the possibility that it might spill over into harsher restrictions on work visas. Still, he also noted that, with the complexity of the rules at hand, he was largely speculating: “I don’t know enough about the specifics to say with certainty about this.”

Some students also questioned whether federal agencies could handle the additional load that the proposed rule would provide, citing the previous delays in processing time for Optional Practical Training (OPT), a temporary work authorization program for students on F-1 status. OPT applications have seen processing times upwards to five months in recent years, a situation that is complicated by the fact that students are asked to apply only 90 days before they start work or graduate.

“I have no idea what makes them think they’ll be able to effectively handle this huge influx in visa processing,” said an international student who wished to remain anonymous due to concerns about future job prospects. “It just seems like a proxy to discourage students from these countries from studying in the US, or to intentionally disrupt their studies in a manner that makes it difficult for them to complete their degree or engage in practical training.”

A number of students who are already beset by visa issues — including Mahran Yousef ’23, a student from Syria who explained that their visa was rejected at first because of the travel ban — fear that proposed rules like these will worsen their situation and push them into bureaucratic limbo, especially as the coronavirus has closed most U.S. embassies. 

“I’m kind of worried now because I have to renew my visa soon, and this process should happen outside the U.S. which might be a problem, because there is no U.S. embassy in Syria and the one in Lebanon is closed,” Yousef said. “These rules are very unfair because students have done nothing wrong to be punished for political reasons. I was planning to do a Ph.D. here, but now I might choose another country.”

Yousef also decried what he perceived to be discriminatory intent behind both the proposed rule and past immigration policies by the Trump administration, noting how they were targeted particularly against Muslim-majority countries and African countries. 

Rajpar concurred with this assessment: “All these changes are always targeted. The fact that most countries affected by these proposed changes are African is not a coincidence,” she said. “It’s rooted in xenophobia and a varying value attached to different individuals from different places.”

“Trump once used the language ‘shithole countries’ to refer to African countries. The U.S. continues to profit off of African countries and African talent but continues to discriminate and oppress them,” Rajpar continued. “This country and its institutions unfortunately do not realize how valuable and talented African students are. Africans no longer want to come to the U.S. in general and now its academic institutions will lose incredibly bright people who will be future change makers and leaders.”

For the administration’s part, the Center for International Student Engagement (CISE) is currently “working with the college to evaluate options for a response,” according to Director of International Student Engagement Hanna Bliss. She confirmed that international students at the college can expect to hear more details from the CISE in the coming days.

Bliss emphasized the unfinalized nature of the proposal. “This is currently a proposed rule, meaning that it is in a period of public comment, and is not yet final,” she said. “Rest assured, though, the CISE and the college will be watching closely as this process unfolds.”

Chief Communications Officer Sandy Genelius also noted that “we are evaluating opportunities to submit a comment, and we encourage members of the community to consider submitting personal comments as well if they are so inclined.”

In the meantime, however, students are left even more unsure of where they fit than before. “I think the college needs to be aware of these risks and extend support to us during these times. We have not heard from the college so far and a lot of us are stressed out and haven’t been able to return to our home country in a very long time,” Rajpar said. “We know that nothing has been decided yet but it would be helpful to know that the college will back us in whatever way they can.”