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Graduate Education

Scientists' concerns about international student pipeline continue

Trump administration proposes time limits on student visas, issues fewer visas, and cracks down on optional practical training

by Andrea Widener
October 29, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 42


The Trump administration’s efforts to restrict immigration continue to ripple through the science community.

Student visas plummeted in 2020
Pandemic-induced visa office shutdowns and Trump administration restrictions led to a huge drop in F-1 visas, which are typically used by international students to study in the US.
An image showing a decrease in visas over the years.

Source: US Department of State.
Note: Data are for fiscal years ending in the year indicated.

As of Oct. 27, over 32,000 people or organizations had submitted comments about a proposed rule that would limit the time international students could stay in the US while working on their degree.

Students can currently stay as long as they need to fulfill the requirements of their degree. But the proposed rule would impose time limits of 2 to 4 years, including on the F visas commonly used by students and the J visas often used by postdocs and visiting scientists. Students who need to stay longer would have to apply for an extension, which would not be guaranteed.

“The United States further risks losing the valuable talent of foreign national students as they choose other nations to study and obtain advanced degrees,” Sudip Parikh, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says in a statement.

At a time when other countries are working to attract more international students and scientists, “we must not cede our leadership in drawing talent from all corners of the globe by undermining our ability as a nation to encourage students and scholars from studying in the United States,” Parikh says.

Scientists were already worried about declining enrollment of international students during the Trump administration. New enrollment of such students fell in fiscal 2019 for the third straight year, according to the Institute for International Education, which tracks international student trends. F-1 visas issued by the State Department tumbled from a high of 644,000 in fiscal 2015 to about 364,000 in 2019 and fewer than 112,000 in 2020.

The Trump administration is also attacking a popular visa extension called Optional Practical Training (OPT). OPT allows international students to stay in the US for up to 3 additional years. Many scientists use OPT time to transition from graduate school or postdocs to permanent positions.

On Oct. 21, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested 15 international students whom the agency accuses of OPT fraud. Most of the students are from India, but others are from Libya, Senegal, and Bangladesh, ICE says in a statement. ICE has sent letters to another 700 students telling them that the agency is revoking their work permits because of alleged violations, Ken Cuchinelli, director of ICE’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, said at a press conference on Oct. 21.

The moves are part of a larger program called Operation OPTical Illusion targeting OPT fraud. “The arrests we highlight today are just the beginning and should serve as a warning” to those who illegally hire ineligible students or misuse the OPT visa, ICE acting director Tony Pham said at the press conference.


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