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Graduate students, U. react to proposed DHS rule limiting student visas

<h5>The Louis A. Simpson Building, which houses the Davis International Center.</h5>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
The Louis A. Simpson Building, which houses the Davis International Center.
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

On Sept. 25, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed a rule, which, if enacted, would set two- or four-year fixed term limits on international student visas and increase government supervision of applications for visa extensions. The announcement has drawn strong criticism from the University’s graduate student community.

International students on F or J visas are admitted into the United States for “duration of status” (D/S) — a flexible period that allows students to stay in the United States as long as they are “pursuing a full course of study at an educational institution approved by DHS, or engaging in authorized practical training.”

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If the proposed rule were to enter into effect, a graduate student’s D/S would expire within 60 days of their graduate program’s end date, not to exceed four years after the rule’s enactment. International students admitted thereafter would receive visas with fixed time limits. 

Neither DHS nor United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) responded to requests for comment.

Graduate Student Government Treasurer Guanhua He, a fourth year GS from China completing a five-year program in Molecular Biology, called the limits “absolutely unreasonable. Basically not acceptable.”

While most student visas would default to the four year limit, the proposed rule specifies that students who are citizens of countries on the Department of State’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list or those that have a “student and exchange visitor total overstay rate of greater than 10 percent” would receive two year visas. The shorter timeframe would apply to 65 countries, primarily in the Middle East and Africa. 

While most undergraduate students at the University graduate in four years and would not be affected by the proposed rule, the two and four year limits are less than the median 5.7 years it takes to graduate from Princeton with a Ph.D.

Under D/S, students’ visa sponsor may extend their stay without filing a request with the government. The DHS’s proposition allows students to apply for an extension if they have “compelling medical or academic reasons,” among other extenuating circumstances. USCIS or Customs and Border Patrol would assess whether extension requests meet the stated criteria.

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A Canadian graduate student who spoke anonymously with The Daily Princetonian expressed concern that the proposed rule’s subjective nature could exacerbate inequality with regards to who obtains extensions.

“If you come from a place that’s been targeted by [the Trump administration] as an effort to control immigration, it’s going to be incredibly, incredibly difficult for you to access a lot of these extensions that are supposed to be on paper available for those who demonstrate need,” they said.

“While I am concerned for myself and my abilities to get an extension if this passes, I am aware of the incredible unevenness [of the proposed policy] and of how this affects people across the world,” they continued.

The administration’s rule comes after a July Immigration and Customs Enforcement decision, which prevented international students with fully online course loads from taking their classes in the United States. In May, President Donald Trump signed a presidential proclamation that regulates the entry of Chinese graduate students into the United States, an extension of a 2018 policy limiting visas for Chinese graduate students in sensitive research fields to a year.

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“It was already exhausting a couple of months ago when the ICE thing happened,” said a graduate student from India who was granted anonymity. “I think my sense is that most people are just exhausted and want to sort of keep their head down somehow [and get] together the energy to finish their dissertations.” 

In its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the DHS explained that the increasing D/S admittance of international students “poses a challenge to the Department’s ability to monitor and oversee” nonimmigrants, which “created incentives for fraud and abuse.” 

The DHS added that these visa abuses place “research universities and the nation at risk for economic, academic, or military espionage by foreign students,” citing three examples of Chinese nonimmigrants charged with violations of intellectual property and/or visa fraud. 

Upon reading the DHS’s justification, He, the graduate student from China, said, “There are way more examples of [Chinese students] contributing than taking away. You cannot say a few bad examples and then say that it is a general case. That’s simply not true.” 

In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Eleanor Gordon-Smith, a fourth year Australian Ph.D. philosophy student, expressed similar sentiments. 

“By taking their talent, labour and research agendas to US universities, international students contribute to the research output of the US and to its global reputation for educational excellence,” she wrote. 

“As a class of persons, international students’ most nefarious aspiration is to be able to learn in this country and possibly, maybe, find a job. It’s not clear to me why highly specialized people who want to learn and work are only partly welcome in the US.” 

When evaluating possible long-term implications of the DHS’s rule, Gordon Smith’s concerns are shared by Federico Marcon, Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of East Asian Studies.

As a former international student who came to the United States in 2001 to pursue a Ph.D., Marcon believes these potential restrictions are “motivated by nothing other than nativist ideology” and “will deeply affect US higher education and society in general.” 

In an email, Marcon wrote that the rule would “disconnect the US from the rest of the world, signaling the beginning of the end of the global relevance and importance of US academia. If restrictions will continue to intensify, I can easily see an inverse diaspora developing in the next few years, a brain-drain away from US institutions and, as a result, their slow decay into insignificance.” 

Since the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the Davis International Center has sent two emails and hosted two information sessions clarifying the rule’s impacts. Director of the Davis International Center Albert Rivera stated in the Oct. 12 session that the center was “working with other campus partners” and “several professional and education associations” to comment on the rule.

The proposed rule is open for public comment until Oct. 26. DHS is required to respond to each comment. 

“Many aspects of the proposed rule are very concerning and we appreciate your patience as we continue our review and analysis to assess and address potential impact,” Rivera added. 

In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss confirmed, “Princeton is working with the higher educational community to bring these concerns to the attention of the federal government, and we will also be submitting comments of our own directly through the rulemaking process.” 

“We’re very concerned about this proposed rule, which could have a significant impact on the international students and scholars who are so important to the University,” Hotchkiss added. “We stand in solidarity with Princeton’s international community during these uncertain times and continue to offer support directly to our international students and scholars through the Davis International Center.”

But some students have called on Nassau Hall to do more. A Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU) organizer called on the University to give international students access to immigration lawyers.

PGSU describes itself as “a group of graduate students committed to winning the right and the opportunity to have a say in the terms and conditions of our employment.” On account of their international status, the ‘Prince’ granted the organizer anonymity.

“Problems like anti-immigration policies are not going to go away overnight,” they said. “I don’t know if there is any other one thing [other than providing access to lawyers] that the University can do which will be as effective in making us feel secure,” they said.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story misidentified a quote from Guanhua He. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error. This piece as also been updated to further incorporate University comment.

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