“I’m relieved,” Reyhan Ayas, a Princeton doctoral student from Turkey told me, just hours after Joe Biden was declared president-elect. “Recently, it felt like no matter how hard I studied or how hard I worked, it didn’t matter. I wouldn’t be welcome here.”
Relief was a dominant theme among the flood of messages I’ve received from international students since Biden’s election. Four years under President Donald Trump has been difficult and dispiriting for many international students, and I’ll share some of their perspectives in a minute. But first, what should international students, and international education as a whole, expect from his successor?
One of Trump’s first acts as president was to abruptly enact a travel ban, barring students and other visitors from a number of predominantly Muslim countries. On his first day in office, Biden will repeal it.
Reportedly also on Biden’s Day One agenda
: reinstating DACA,
the Obama-era program that gave temporary legal protections to young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Trump had ended the program and defied a Supreme Court order to reopen it.
But DACA is only a temporary fix, and Biden, who served eight years as President Obama’s vice president, has pledged to give so-called dreamers a pathway to citizenship. Polls consistently show bipartisan support for DACA recipients, notes Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. The president-elect has also called for overhauling the immigration system, expanding visas for skilled workers and exempting recent graduates from Ph.D. programs in STEM fields from any caps.
“Foreign graduates of of a U.S. doctoral program should be given a green card with their degree,” Biden’s campaign platform
states. “Losing these highly trained workers to foreign economies is a disservice to our own economic competitiveness.”
Hopes for comprehensive immigration reform, however, could be off-the-table even before Biden takes office. Democrats lost ground in the U.S. House, and Republicans are poised to retain control of the Senate. Even if Democrats were to win two run-off senatorial elections in Georgia, their margins could be too narrow to pass legislation as historically contentious as immigration reform.
Biden also faces a host of challenges, including surging coronavirus infections, a weak economy, and simmering racial divisions. It’s an open question where international-student issues will fall among those competing priorities.
“The rollback of the harmful policies of the past four years won’t happen overnight,” Feldblum said, “and positive change won’t be fully realized without us staying engaged, focused, and determined.”
If legislative avenues are not promising, Biden could use presidential orders to set policy — much like Trump. Trump put in place more than 400 executive actions or rules related to immigration, according to Stephen Yale-Loehr, a law professor at Cornell. He “effectively built an invisible wall.”
Through executive action, President-elect Biden could undo a number of Trump’s policies, such as a prohbition on emergency covid-relief grants going to international students. He also could use administrative orders as a way to promote his own agenda. The new president needs to give more certainty to students seeking to study in the United States, said Rachel Banks, senior director for public policy and legislative strategy for NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
“Those who choose to come to the U.S. to contribute to our campuses and our communities need to know that in choosing to do so there will be processes in place that are fair, which they can rely upon to make choices for themselves and their families.”
But like Trump, Biden could face legal challenges to his authority. States and anti-immigration organizations could try to block presidential orders and rules through litigation, Yale-Loehr said, just as colleges, business groups, and others did during Trump’s term.
Even now, a higher ed-tech coalition is suing to stop new restrictions on H-1B visas imposed by the Trump administration that would make it more difficult for international graduates to stay in the U.S. and for universities to hire foreign-born professors and researchers.
What’s more, nearly two and a half months remain before Inauguration Day, and President Trump could still enact additional policies that are unfriendly to international students.
Banks expressed concern that the administration could make last-minute changes to practical training, which permits international students to gain work experience. And advocates are eyeing warily a proposed rule
that would put strict time limits on student visas. If approved, it could be a “significant deterrent” to international students, Feldblum said, noting that regulatory changes are more difficult to undo than presidential orders.
More than 32,000 comments have been submitted on the draft, and officials are supposed to read every one before releasing a final rule, so opponents could potentially run out the clock. Still, Feldblum worries that the Trump administration could push through the rule on the way out the door.