By LINDSAY SCHNELL | USA TODAY
Leon Lewis-Nicol can still hear the gunshots. If he closes his eyes, he can picture the burning buildings. As a child in Freetown, Sierra Leone, a nation in West Africa devastated by civil war, Lewis-Nicol often imagined a better, safer life. His family fled the fighting, then returned to Sierra Leone, before ultimately moving to Ghana, some 900 miles away, when he was 15. But friends who traveled around the world used to speak of an even safer place, with clean streets and unlimited opportunities: the United States.
Lewis-Nicol knew he had to go.
Now, the 24-year-old is here, studying to receive his master’s degree in jazz performance from University of Illinois. He’s been in the states four years — he earned his undergrad at Millikin University, a small, private school in Decatur, Illinois — set to graduate in 2022. But he wonders if other West African natives like him will soon have the same chance.
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This week, President Donald Trump’s administration unveiled proposed rule changes that would dramatically alter student visas, leaving the international student community reeling just a few weeks into the 2020-21 academic year. The proposed changes — which are detailed in a 256-page document online and have already drawn hundreds of public comments — could devastate science research and tech innovation nationwide, experts warn.
“The overall tone of the proposed rules sends a chilling message to current and prospective international students that we are no longer a welcoming nation,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor and attorney at Cornell Law School who specializes in immigration law. “It says we’re more focused on national security threats, and that we suspect they could be coming here to do harm rather than help the U.S.”
Put another way: “It feels terrible,” Lewis-Nicol said. “The stigma is that if you’re from Africa, you’re not wanted and that your dreams are not as valid.”
The proposal comes on the heels of the Trump administration’s introduction — and then abandonment — of a controversial rule barring international students from living in the U.S. while taking fall classes online due to the pandemic. The administration scrapped the policy after a slew of lawsuits.
According to Yale-Loehr’s analysis, the latest proposed changes would, among other things: null
- Require most international students to finish their studies in four years — even though, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, most first-time college students take more than five years to earn a bachelor’s degree, and many doctoral programs also take more than four years;
- Limit stays for some international students to just two years;
- Require many international students to apply for extensions to their visas with no guarantee that they’d receive them, especially if the immigration agency determines that the student is not making sufficient progress toward their degree.
Students born in certain countries — particularly African nations, as well as Middle Eastern countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq — would be limited to two-year visas, which means no four-year degrees.
At Millikin in Illinois, roughly 50% of the international student population comes from countries whose citizens would be restricted by the rules, such as Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Nepal, among others.
The college’s Center for International Education is “sending things out almost constantly trying to calm the fears of our international students,” Director Briana Quintenz said.
“It’s so unfair to them that they can’t just enjoy their college experience,” Quintenz said. “They have to continually dissect these very confusing regulations that seem to be coming out all the time. … My biggest concern is that the already very rigid restrictions are going to become even more complicated, and international students are just going to stop trying to come to the U.S.”
Yale-Loehr said the proposed changes don’t necessarily come as a surprise.
“This is part of a larger anti-immigrant trend coming from this administration,” Yale-Loehr said.
If the rule passes, it would be the biggest change to international student regulation in almost 20 years.
After 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security started a new program requiring colleges to monitor international students to ensure they were here studying and not for alternative purposes. Schools track if international students don’t take a full course load or suddenly drop out.
The system is “cumbersome,” Yale-Loehr said, but it works: Universities are able to see which students are falling through the cracks. The proposed rule changes imply the existing system needs revamping, he said, “when colleges would tell you it’s working just fine.”
But the Trump administration said the rule would strengthen the system for making sure only legitimate students friendly to the U.S. come to the country’s universities.
“Amending the relevant regulations is critical in improving program oversight mechanisms; preventing foreign adversaries from exploiting the country’s education environment; and properly enforcing and strengthening U.S. immigration laws,” said Ken Cuccinelli, a senior immigration official in the Department of Homeland Security.
Foreign students could apply to extend their stay or reapply for admission to the country, Cuccinelli said.
Economic impact would be ‘detrimental’
International students make up roughly 5% of students at American universities and colleges, and their economic impact alone is staggering. According to NAFSA, the association of international educators, 1 million international students contributed $41 billion to the U.S. economy in the 2018-19 academic year.
Most international students pay full, out-of-state tuition costs, a boon to universities and one that allows them to keep costs lower for domestic students. And the money they spend on rent and at local restaurants is especially important in Midwest college towns that have been hit hard by recessions, said Gaurav Khanna, an economist at the University of California, San Diego. Then there’s the academic concerns.
“This wouldn’t just affect the university sector,” Khanna said. “While international students are here, they do critical research, but then after they graduate, a lot of them join the science and tech sector, where a lot of innovation happens.”
But international students say their contributions go beyond the economy.
Dev Purandare is a doctoral computer science student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who came to the U.S. from India four years ago. Like most international students, he grew up believing the American higher education system was second to none.
“For education, you can’t do much better,” Purandare said. “We can come here and get degrees, participate in research. But we also contribute. Over the course of my career, I’ve been a teaching assistant, I’ve taught courses, and right now I’m mentoring undergraduate and graduate students. And many of them are from California.”
The uncertain future has shaken Purandare and other students.
“It’s demoralizing to international students to have to face a new crisis every month and wonder if we’ll be able to continue what we’re doing,” he said. “The lack of stability is really harmful for productivity. I can’t make any sort of life plans. I can’t even get a cat — because what if I have to leave the next day, or the next week?”
Purandare is in the middle of his doctoral program, and his visa will be up for renewal in the next year. He’s worried about how that process could play out. But even if he’s OK, he said he’s likely to accept a post-doc position outside of the U.S., where he feels more welcome.
Lewis-Nicol, the graduate student from Sierra Leone, agrees.
Lewis-Nicol dreams of becoming such an accomplished musician, he can tour the world and win Grammys. But mostly, he wants to go back to Africa, build music schools and help his people. He thought the U.S. would be the best place to go to help fulfill his dreams, but he’s wondering now if he needs to look elsewhere. Maybe another country won’t define him solely by his birth place.
“That’s why we’re leaving our countries, because we don’t want to be put in a box. We want opportunities,” he said. “If America doesn’t want me, maybe I’ll go to Canada, or somewhere else.
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