Reopening Doors to International Students and Scholars

Guest Blog Post, Elizabeth A. Gill, Director of International Employment and Immigration, Montclair State University….

International students and scholars are undeniably vital to the cultural and economic life of the United States. The Institute of International Education found that the United States hosted 914,095 international students and 85,538 scholars in the 2020-2021 academic year. In a separate analysis, NAFSA: Association of International Educators discovered that the students alone “contributed $28.4 billion and supported 306,308 jobs to the U.S. economy”—in a year abounding with consulate and embassy closures and remote or hybrid learning, with a 15% decrease in international students.

New Jersey hosted 19,039 of those international students, who contributed $61.71 million to the economy and supported 6,913 jobs, statistics emphasizing their great importance to our state and its businesses. With so much riding on international student and scholar contributions, the higher education community continues to hope that the White House will accelerate its progress toward improving the processes and prospects for immigration in the year 2022. For the time being, let us reflect on the immigration developments significant to higher education over the past year.

Many felt that the administration came out of the gate strong in 2021, with President Joe Biden signing a day-one memorandum Preserving and Fortifying Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and a proclamation Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to the United Statesthus bringing a rapid close to the previous administration’s travel bans, which the new White House called “a stain on our national conscience.” Nonetheless, practitioners in international higher education knew the importance of advocacy irrespective of an administration’s stance on immigration, and in early February 2021, NAFSA, the American Council on Education (ACE), and fifty-three other institutions of higher education began advocating to the new administration by asking the U.S. Secretary of Education to clarify that the latest COVID-19 relief funding for emergency student aid (HEERF)would go to international students and Dreamers, an effort that saw its fruition in May. The same week, Study International laid out “5 ways the Biden administration may attract more international students”,and advocacy efforts by the higher education community and others continued throughout 2021.

As the year drew to a close, certain successes were readily apparent: the Department of Education had updated its HEERF FAQs to include international and undocumented students; the Biden administration had replaced COVID-related geographic entry bans with a vaccination requirement; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had extended its post-pandemic grant of flexibility in responding to agency requests; and in response to persuasive advocacy efforts, the Department of State had reduced its student and Exchange Visitor visa processing backlog and waived in-person interviews for some employment-based visas. But there were some noteworthy disappointments: the number of consulates and embassies remaining closed or partially closed, the persisting long visa wait times for employment-based visas, the increase in USCIS’s processing time for key work visas like the H-1B and accompanying dependent applications, and the Afghan refugee crisis.

As 2022 dawned, the Biden-Harris administration sought to make good on more of its commitments to higher education by announcing measures to “to Attract STEM Talent and Strengthen our Economy and Competitiveness”, including expanding the list of designated degree programs eligible for STEM OPT, facilitating the availability of additional Academic Training employment to J-1 students in STEM fields, and providing guidance for STEM-related O-1A petitions; but it continued to grapple with staggering immigration issues, such as the 380,000-count immigrant visa backlog. In its ownanalysis of the administration’s first year, The Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a coalition of more than 500 college and university presidents and chancellors, concluded that “crucial first steps for immigrant and international students and scholars” had been taken, but there was a “need for continued progress to create a safe, equitable, and just immigration system for all.”