Trump’s proposed college student visa changes worry international students — again
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 Millikin University, a small, private school in Decatur, Illinois. He’s been in the states four years, set to graduate in 2022. But he wonders if other West African natives like him will soon have the same chance.
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:
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.
To stay in America, or go home? Coronavirus pandemic brings stress, fear for international students.
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.
Trump admin. drops visa rule against online-only classes: But some new international students were still barred from U.S.
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.
COVID-19, visas, Trump: International students turning away from US colleges for lots of reasons
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.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump student visa rule: DHS pushes F1 changes for US colleges
GOP senator openly hopes Supreme Court battle will distract voters from 200,000 COVID-19 deaths
Sen. Lamar Alexander Getty/Alex Wong
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is openly hoping that a big fight over a Supreme Court nominee could distract voters from the 200,000-plus Americans who have died from the novel coronavirus on President Donald Trump’s watch.
In an interview with The New York Times, Alexander said that the Supreme Court battle is the party’s best chance to make the 2020 election about something other than Trump and the coronavirus pandemic.
“Either the election can be about Trump, or about COVID or about the Supreme Court,” Alexander explained. “And, I think, of those three, if it’s about the Supreme Court, that traditionally has helped Republicans more.”
To that end, Republicans are hoping that angry Democrats launch scathing personal attacks against the eventual nominee and will turn the entire hearing into a political circus similar to the one that occurred two years ago during confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
But while the Kavanaugh hearings may have helped GOP base turnout in the 2018 midterm elections, it didn’t stop Republicans from losing 40 seats in the House of Representatives, and Democrats won governorships that year in key swing states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin.
California braces for power shutoffs and warm, windy weekend
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Firefighters and officials at California’s largest utility company braced for hot, dry and windy weather in northern and central areas of the state this weekend that may fan the flames of several major wildfires or ignite new ones.
Pacific Gas & Electric warned Friday it may cut power from Sunday morning to Monday, potentially affecting 97,000 customers in 16 counties, during which forecasters said a ridge of high pressure will raise temperatures and generate gusts flowing from the interior to the coast.
PG&E initially warned that approximately 21,000 customers in three counties would lose power beginning Saturday evening but expanded the potential shutoff when the forecast changed.
The utility is tracking the weather to determine if it would be necessary to shut off power to areas where gusts could damage the company’s equipment or hurl debris into lines that can ignite flammable vegetation.
When heavy winds were predicted earlier this month, PG&E cut power to about 167,000 homes and businesses in central and Northern California in a more targeted approach after being criticized last year for acting too broadly when it blacked out 2 million customers to prevent fires.
PG&E equipment has sparked past large wildfires, including the 2018 fire that destroyed much of the Sierra foothills town of Paradise and killed 85 people.
Firefighters battling the state’s largest wildfire braced for the change in weather by constructing fuel breaks on Friday to keep the flames from reaching a marijuana-growing enclave where authorities said many of the locals have refused to evacuate and abandon their maturing crops.
The wildfire called the August Complex is nearing the small communities of Post Mountain and Trinity Pines, about 200 miles (322 kilometers) northwest of Sacramento, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Law enforcement officers went door to door warning of the encroaching fire danger but could not force residents to evacuate, Trinity County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Nate Trujillo said.
“It’s mainly growers,” Trujillo said. “And a lot of them, they don’t want to leave because that is their livelihood.”
As many as 1,000 people remained in Post Mountain and Trinity Pines, authorities and local residents estimated Thursday.
Numerous studies in recent years have linked bigger U.S. wildfires to global warming from the burning of coal, oil and gas, especially because climate change has made California much drier. A drier California means plants are more flammable.
The U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region announced Friday that it is extending the closure of all nine national forests in California due to concerns including fire conditions and critical limitations on firefighting resources.
The threatened marijuana growing area is in the Emerald Triangle, a three-county corner of Northern California that by some estimates is the nation’s largest cannabis-producing region.
People familiar with Trinity Pines said the community has up to 40 legal farms, with more than 10 times that number in hidden, illegal growing areas.
Growers are wary of leaving the plants vulnerable to flames or thieves. Each farm has crops worth half a million dollars or more and many are within days or weeks of harvest.
One estimate put the value of the area’s legal marijuana crop at about $20 million.
“There (are) millions of dollars, millions and millions of dollars of marijuana out there,” Trujillo said. “Some of those plants are 16 feet (5 meters) tall, and they are all in the budding stages of growth right now.”
Gunfire in the region is common. A recent night brought what locals dubbed the “roll call” of cannabis cultivators shooting rounds from pistols and automatic weapons as warnings to outsiders, said Post Mountain volunteer Fire Chief Astrid Dobo, who also manages legal cannabis farms.
Hundreds of migrant workers typically pour into the area this time of year to help trim and harvest the plants, but it’s uncertain whether that population dwindled due to the coronavirus pandemic, said Julia Rubinic, a member of the Trinity County Agriculture Alliance, which represents licensed cannabis growers.
Mike McMillan, spokesman for the federal incident command team managing the northern section of the August Complex, said fire officials plan to deliver a clear message that ”we are not going to die to save people. That is not our job.”
“We are going to knock door to door and tell them once again,” McMillan said. “However, if they choose to stay and if the fire situation becomes, as we say, very dynamic and very dangerous … we are not going to risk our lives.”
A firefighter was killed and another was injured on Aug. 31 while working on the fire. Diana Jones, a volunteer firefighter from Texas, was among 26 people who have died since more than two dozen major wildfires broke out across the state last month.
A memorial service was held Friday for a veteran firefighter, Charles Morton, 39, a squad boss with the Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Crew who died Sept. 17 while battling the El Dorado Fire in the San Bernardino National Forest east of Los Angeles.
“I know that Charlie was a very skilled, in fact extraordinary, firefighter and a fire leader,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen told the gathering at The Rock Church in San Bernardino.
“He committed himself, often for weeks and months on end, to protecting lives, communities and natural resources all around this country in service to fellow Americans.”
The Butte County Sheriff’s Office on Friday released the identity of another of the 15 people killed in a rampaging forest fire earlier this month. The remains of Linda Longenbach, 71, of Berry Creek, were found on Sept. 10 in a roadway about 10 feet from an ATV, close to the body of a man previously identified as Paul Winer, 68.
A relative told investigators the victims were aware of the fire and chose not to evacuate.
Associated Press writer John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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