Of all the self-defeating actions in the Trump administration’s war on immigrants, the most puzzling is its obsession with driving foreign students out of the United States. Last week, the administration unveiled a proposed rule that would force out many students by revoking visas if they fail to finish their degrees in four years, and would also limit students from many African and Middle Eastern countries to two-year visas.
This comes on top of its failed effort earlier this year to strip visas from foreign students in universities that had been forced to switch to remote learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. The administration backed down after lawsuits and a storm of protest from the nation’s top colleges and universities.
President Donald Trump has already taken other steps to block students from Muslim-majority countries and to send home many Chinese students and researchers working in technical fields, claiming they pose a national security threat. And his administration is working on plans to shrink or eliminate the Optional Practical Training program, which allows many foreign students to remain in the U.S. and work in their field of study for up to two years on their student visas.
The hostility to foreign students is striking even for the Trump administration, which has made no secret of its desire to reduce immigration. For many decades, the U.S. has been by far the largest recipient of international students.
Last year, it hosted 1.1 million foreign students, more than twice the number of the United Kingdom, which hosts the second-highest number of foreign students in the world. There used to be a strong national consensus that this was an enormously positive thing for the U.S., and Republicans were especially enthusiastic.
As Robert Gates, who went on to serve as defense secretary under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, told The Wall Street Journal in 2006, “In the last half century allowing students from other countries to study here has been the most positive thing America has done to win friends from around the world.”
In 2011, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said that foreign students “return home with an increased understanding and often a lasting affection for the United States,” and that he could “think of no more valuable asset to our country than the friendship of future world leaders who have been educated here.”
Economically, the gains are also obvious. Educational services for foreign students are worth more than $40 billion each year, making it the country’s fifth-largest service export. Most foreign students pay full fees at U.S. colleges and universities, which helps those schools offset the lower tuition paid by many American students, especially at public universities.
Many of those international students then choose to stay and work in the country. Nearly one-quarter of the start-up companies in America that are now worth more than $1 billion had a founder who first came to the U.S. as an international student. America’s lead in research on artificial intelligence is largely built on the talents of foreign students; more than 85 percent of international students working in AI remain in the country after they graduate to work for U.S. companies or research institutions.
The Trump administration’s actions have already had a chilling impact on foreign student enrollment. Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, new enrollments by international students had already fallen nearly 11 percent since the fall of 2016, with many of these students heading to places like Australia or Canada instead.
While tuition costs are rising, money does not appear to be the biggest obstacle. Among foreign students who turned down offers from U.S. colleges and universities last year, about half cited tuition costs, in a recent NAFSA survey—the same as in 2016. Among those who declined to enroll in the fall of 2019, 87 percent cited denials or delays in student visas, up from just 34 percent in 2016.
The same percentage of respondents, 87 percent, also said the main reason for their decreased desire to study in the U.S. is that they perceive the country to be less welcoming toward foreign students.
The attack on international students seems to mark a new phase in the administration’s descent into a more virulent nativism that regards all immigrants with suspicion.
Trump’s latest proposal would have even more of a chilling effect. Currently, foreign students are allowed to remain in the U.S. until they complete their programs of study, known as “duration of status.” That allows them to avoid the cost and uncertainty of applying for a visa extension to continue their schooling.
But the Trump administration is making the largely unfounded argument that such open-ended visas are an invitation for fraud, encouraging students to drag out their programs of study in order to remain in the country. The new rules would limit the visa term to four years, even though many programs of study, such as doctoral programs, typically take five years or more.
Students would be granted extensions, but only for quite narrow and specific reasons. They would have to demonstrate that “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.”
The new measures would also further restrict students from designated “high risk” countries whose students are deemed likely to overstay their visas and remain illegally in the U.S. That proposed restriction is based on still-unreliable data that the Department of Homeland Security has been gathering during Trump’s presidency to identify international students who overstay their visas.
Students from most African countries would find their homes on that list of supposedly high-risk countries, as would those from Vietnam, Nepal and the Philippines. The two-year visa would make pursuing a university degree in the U.S. itself risky for foreign students, because they might complete the first two years and then be denied a visa extension.
The new rule would affect not just international students on what are known as F visas, but also exchange visitors on J visas, including professors and researchers, and foreign media on I visas. Some 2 million visa holders in all would fall under the new rule if it is enacted.
The administration’s motivations are difficult to parse. Trump himself has expressed open hostility to refugees and asylum-seekers and has effectively barred them from the U.S. since the outbreak of the pandemic.
He also infamously told lawmakers in an Oval Office meeting that he did not want immigrants from “shithole countries” to be admitted to the country. But Trump also claimed last year that he wanted to see a more “merit-based” U.S. immigration system that would favor those with specialized skills and exceptional academic records. Students seeking academic degrees in the U.S., particularly graduate degrees, would normally be a first priority under such a system.
The attack on international students instead seems to mark a new phase in the administration’s descent into more virulent nativism that regards all immigrants with suspicion. The final rule is unlikely to be approved before next January and would surely be rescinded if Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is elected. But with foreign students already turning to other countries, it will take the U.S. a long time to recover from these self-inflicted wounds.