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On Dec. 21, 2018, the Office of Communications announced in a statement that the University joined 65 other colleges and universities in public support of a lawsuit defending international students, professors, and researchers from a new federal visa policy which took effect in August.

International students at schools such as Haverford College and The New School have already suffered from the new policy, which impacts the federal government’s definition of “unlawful presence.”

The lawsuit was originally filed by Foothill-De Anza Community College, Guilford College, Haverford College, and The New School against the United States Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and USCIS director Lee Francis Cissna.

The plaintiffs described the newly implemented visa policy as “a massive reconfiguration of the immigration laws relating to higher education.”

According to the complaint, since 1997, the U.S. government has defined the beginning of a visa-yielding individual’s unlawful presence as “the day after either a government official or immigration judge made a determination that the individual was out-of-status.”

But since Aug. 9, 2018, nearly two decades after the United States initially created its definition of “unlawful presence,” the status has been defined as beginning the day immediately after an individual loses status.

In other words, although the previous policy required official government notification prior to the “unlawful presence” timer’s beginning, the government is no longer obligated to provide notification, potentially leaving many visa holders in the dark in terms of their status.

The legal definition of “unlawful presence” is the primary method by which the U.S. government determines the length that an individual violating visa policies should be barred from the country.

After an individual accrues 180 days of unlawful presence in the United States, an individual would face a three-year-long bar from reentry.

Following a period of one year or longer of unlawful presence, an individual would be barred for 10 years.

In the policy memorandum released by USCIS on Aug. 9, USCIS justified the new policy by claiming that it would help “to reduce the number of overstays and to improve how USCIS implements the unlawful presence ground of inadmissibility.”

Furthermore, USCIS cited the overstay rates in the fiscal year 2016 as further justification: 6.19 percent for F visa nonimmigrants, 3.80 percent for J visa nonimmigrants, and 11.60 percent for M visa nonimmigrants.

Within the lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that the new policy would not only cause “concrete, significant harms to colleges and universities” through the loss of “irreplaceable community members, … tuition dollars, and … trained employees,” but that the policy is also unlawful.

The plaintiffs condemn the defendants for their lack of transparency and attention to legal procedures and requirements in compliance with “requirements imposed by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).”

Furthermore, the plaintiffs claim that the policy violates the “statutory text” as well as “protections guaranteed by the Due Process Clause.”

Two of the plaintiffs, Haverford College and the New School, have already experienced drastic changes within their international communities on campus as a result of the policy.

The colleges have become “more likely to refer students to outside immigration lawyers” and also report that some students have withdrawn from their institutions out of fear of the new policy.

The lawsuit estimates that tens of thousands of students and professors will be affected by this new policy annually.

Ellen Scott-Young ’20, who hails from Australia, noted that she is most concerned about the lack of transparency regarding the new policy. She expressed uncertainty about how the changes would affect her visa status, immigration, and border-crossing experiences.

“It’s the uncertainty that is truly worrying,” Scott-Young said. “I know for sure that I want to work here after graduation, but some of the process seems so daunting and unclear to me that balancing Princeton, finals, graduation, and the responsibilities as an international student seems an impossible task at times.”

Tori Gorton ’21, a sophomore from the United Kingdom, echoed Scott-Young’s sentiments. She expressed concern that her plans for education in the United States beyond undergrad could be hindered by the new visa policy.

“I find the new policy quite threatening, given that such a small accident, incident, or mishap could result in a 10-year suspension,” Gorton said. “Especially since the mistake can also be on the side of a college official.”

When asked if she found the University to be a dependable resource for international students, Gorton noted that she appreciated the commitment to accessible information and community, but found that legal support could be improved.

“If you ever have a question, they’re very informative, and they hold a lot of events and information sessions,” Gorton said. “But regarding these new federal policies, I don’t believe that I was informed about these changes. I think, in that respect, they could be better.”

Scott-Young also found that, despite the University’s current levels of reliable support to international students, more relevant information should be communicated to students in a timely manner.

“As an international student on campus, I do feel fully supported by my friends and faculty, and the administration does a great job making you feel like your place here is secure and valued,” Scott-Young said. “However, it would be great to receive notification exactly what they foresee these changes to be and who they foresee these to be affecting.”

“If the administration could do a better job of working with us to determine what those changes would be, that would be a more collaborative approach to the situation that we find ourselves in,” she said.

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