After the Trump administration proposed a new rule to increase restrictions on international student visas, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel co-signed a letter with 21 other state attorneys general opposing the policy. 

In a Friday press release, Nessel condemned the proposed rule and said the suggested timeline was unrealistic. 

“For decades we have allowed international students to remain in the U.S. until their studies are completed, and this proposed rule shows a blatant disregard for the positive impacts these students have on our economy and our cultural diversity,” Nessel said in a statement. “The reality for many students is that obtaining a college degree may not happen within four years, so to propose a rule which could limit that achievement and stifle the value of a culturally enriched experience within our universities is damaging to the U.S.’s reputation as a world leader.” 

This follows multiple other possible policy changes for these visas from earlier this year. In July, the Trump administration tried to limit visas by requiring new international students to take in-person classes to stay in the country, despite the fact that most universities, including the University of Michigan, had moved classes online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. After multiple lawsuits, the policy was rescinded

If enacted, the proposed rule would significantly limit international student visas, most dramatically for students from 59 countries. Four of these countries — Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria — are included based on claims from the Department of Homeland Security that their governments are state sponsors of terrorism. The others are included largely due to visa overstay rates of more than 10% from last year’s DHS report, with 36 of these countries being in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

It would also limit the time for which student visas are active, making them apply for only two- or four-year fixed terms, both for under and post-grad programs. As with U.S.-born students, many international students take longer than 2-to-4 years to complete their education. 

According to the letter from the Attorney General’s Office, 53.2% of all international students, of which there are more than 700,000 in total, were enrolled in bachelor’s or Ph.D. programs in 2018 with a minimum duration of four years. 

Under the current policy, known as “duration of status,” students can generally stay in the U.S. for as long as necessary to complete their educational program, assuming they remain enrolled at an accredited institution and are meeting general progress requirements toward a degree.

If the new policy is enacted, students will only be allowed exceptions to the rule for compelling academic reasons, documented medical illnesses or circumstances beyond students’ control. 

Engineering junior Tony Pan, an international student from mainland China, said the four-year time limit was too short, as international students may face additional challenges in finishing their degree as quickly as U.S.-based students, especially if they are not fluent in English. 

He said he has thought about pursuing a Ph.D. in robotics in the U.S. but does not know if that would be possible under this timeline, saying it would be impossible to complete meaningful research in that time frame. He added that international students also come from different cultural backgrounds.

“Many (international students) may not even have the exposure like a lot of American students had when they were in high school,” Pan said. “Maybe they wanted to explore (different subjects) for the first year … Also, I really want to mention: it takes a long time to adapt to any environment with culture shock.” 

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University President Mark Schlissel, in a letter submitted to DHS and co-signed by Provost Susan Collins, opposed the proposed rule and asked for its withdrawal. 

Schlissel echoed claims that the timeline was unrealistic and said it should be up to the University to examine student progress. He wrote the proposed regulation represents a severe misunderstanding of how higher education in the U.S. works.

“All of our students, regardless of their country of citizenship, should have the same opportunities,” Schlissel wrote.

The University’s International Center submitted a similar letter on behalf of the University. 

The 22 attorneys general provided numerous reasons to abandon the proposed rule in their letter, arguing it could cause a sharp decline in international student enrollment, as only 41% of students at U.S. colleges and universities complete their bachelor’s degree within four years. 

In his letter, Schlissel explained the importance of international students’ contributions to the U.S. 

“Although the United States long has been the top destination for international students, scholars and faculty, there has been a nationwide decline in their numbers over the past few years, and this proposed regulation would undoubtedly result in a further decline,” Schlissel wrote. 

Pan said reducing international student enrollment would only damage American colleges. 

“The Trump attempt to stop international students will only hurt the U.S. in terms of the prestige of U.S. education because the strength of the U.S. education lies within diversity,” Pan said. “And if Trump takes away that diversity, then there’s no difference between the USA’s universities from another university.”

International students’ tuition is a large source of income for American universities, giving them more money to spend on student services benefiting American students. 

The attorneys general also noted the detrimental effects on state economies. They also expressed concern the proposed rule would create unnecessary “red-tape.” If this rule was finalized, there would be hundreds of thousands of new visa applications that need to be reviewed — approximately 364,000 by 2024, according to the press release. Visa applications are often not reviewed in a timely fashion. Not only would this take extensive time, but would result in unnecessary spending, according to the attorneys general.

They also argue the proposed law conflicts with existing federal statutes and regulations and “reflects outright disregard for the rule of law.”

DHS offered various justifications for the restrictions in the proposed rule, including a desire for greater oversight and management. Acting DHS Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said in a Sept. 24 statement the change is crucial in “preventing foreign adversaries from exploiting the country’s education environment.” 

Pan said he wishes the school would be more outspoken in backing international students.

“I know that’s a difficult situation because it’s a public university, (but) I think the University needs to be more vocal in support, even if it’s just to see official statements in emails to students,” Pan said. 

In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen said the University will continue to monitor the proposal. 

Pan said for many international students, dealing with the proposal has been difficult. 

“I haven’t been able to go home since last winter break because … I’m afraid that when I have to come to the U.S. for the next semester, I will not be able to enter the country,” Pan said. “And that’s a huge problem because I signed my lease, I pay rent, I pay the dining hall for food … We cannot go home right now because of Trump.” 

Pan expressed hope that many of these new and confusing regulations on international student enrollment would change under a Biden administration. 

“It’s so confusing,” Pan said. “It induces a lot of stress on international students because we have to keep thinking about, ‘Are we welcome here?’ And the confusion is there’s so many rules and I’m not sure which one actually stands. I’m glad the executive actions will be gone, hopefully, when the new administration comes.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Emma Ruberg can be reached at eruberg@umich.edu.

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