Photo by Hunter Newton on Unsplash

At the beginning of 2003, a little under a year and a half after September 11th, the Department of Homeland Security implemented the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). In theory, this database — which tracks the status and conduct of international students during their stay in the United States — would prevent a similar attack from occurring. In practice, it served to mark foreign students for intrusive surveillance while levying a tax on students and the schools they attend.

A new DHS-proposed rule would make it much harder for international students to study and thrive in U.S. schools and colleges. The rule is based on flawed logic, data, and analysis, and discriminates against African, Muslim, and low-income students. The proposal is part of a regrettable but coherent continuum in American politics, embodied to the hilt by the current administration, where xenophobia is a political tool to paint foreign nationals as dangerous. It also represents an attack on the American value that international study is good for our nation and that students, regardless of class or country, should have a space where they can challenge each other, join in dialogue and build the ideas of our future.

Previously, students on academic or exchange visas kept their visas throughout their student career, as long as they were complying with the visa’s conditions. Now, students in four-year programs will be hard-capped at four years, after which they can apply for extensions. But a two-year cap will apply to students who come from countries on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, students from countries with an overstay rate above 10%, students going to unaccredited schools or schools not using or not in good standing with the government’s immigrant tracking system, E-Verify.

E-Verify requires that employers verify all of their employees are legal immigrants or citizens. It targets immigrants, with or without papers, and hurts workers and small businesses.

Countries with an overstay rate higher than 10% comprise 36 of Africa’s 53 countries and a handful of Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern countries. The rule represents, with the most generous of readings, the negligent targeting of African students and poorer students around the world. Not only does the proposed rule rely on flawed data — DHS consistently overestimates overstay rates — but it also punishes students for the acts of others, which have no bearing on whether any particular student or exchange visitor will violate immigration law. A critical reading places the rule on a continuum with the first major action taken by the Trump administration: Executive Order 13769, known as “the Muslim Ban”, and its expanded application to African countries. In reality, these “high risk” countries contribute to less than 25% of annual overstays. The other 75% come from high-volume countries, whose large populations keep them under the 10% threshold. It does not make sense to punish students from countries like Tuvalu, which in 2019 had an overstay rate at 16.67% caused by one person’s overstay.

The Tuvalu example points to the flaw in the rule’s logic: punishing countries with high overstay rates does very little to actually confront the problem of overstays. And with the level of overestimation by DHS on overstay rates, we should question whether it’s a problem at all.

The proposed rule erects another deterrent: skyrocketing fees. The cost to apply for a visa extension would rise to as much as $705 — a more than 50% increase over previous extension fees, which in actuality students rarely paid because the visas were structured to accommodate their entire period of study.

International students must demonstrate that they can pay full tuition before they can get a visa to attend a U.S. program. This hurdle, already high for low-income students, has gotten higher as tuition rates continue to rise 8 times faster than wages. In 2019, 55% of international students who did not enroll in college in the US cited tuition costs as one of their top reasons. For students who need a lawyer to help with their visa application, costs can spike as high as $1195. Costs increase further if U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) requests an in-person interview. These fees add to an already expensive process that disproportionately excludes low-income international students.

Currently, students communicate with SEVIS through a Designated School Official (DSO), with whom students have the opportunity to build a relationship. Under the new rule, students would interact directly with immigration officials at DHS. Unlike DSOs, immigration officers wouldn’t know students or their circumstances on a deeper level than their case files. The change would wring much of the humanity out of an already stressful process.

We might find something darkly ironic when students fund their own surveillance. Since 2015, new international student enrollment has fallen 10% in the U.S. Many students opt to study abroad elsewhere as Administration rulings making it more difficult to be an international student pile up. Why should students come to be treated like criminals?

The most cynical arguments point to a gaping flaw in the logic of any rule that disincentivizes international study. International graduate students provide a vital service to American higher education. Without them, a huge number of science and engineering programs couldn’t remain in operation. International students directly educate American students as teaching assistants and support research programs by aiding professors. International students also offer a massive boon to the economy. In California alone, international students contributed an estimated $6.8 billion to the economy. Country-wide, that number climbs to $44 billion. International students have helped create 458,000 jobs.

International study and exchange programs, ideally, offer the richest sites of formation of the future citizens of the world. Confronted with foreign ideas, students learn about their own culture. In dialogue, these ideas rub against each other and hopefully produce fire. Students challenge each other. They pursue, as compatriots, a deeper understanding of the world through study that will serve them for years in an increasingly interconnected world order and economy. And students often find that they have more commonalities than differences.

These aren’t empty promises. Congress noted exactly these points when it created the exchange visitor program. The program’s proposed purpose was to “increase mutual understanding” between the United States and the rest of the world, “strengthen the ties which unite us” and highlight “the contributions being made toward a peaceful and more fruitful life for people throughout the world.”

We must reject this proposed rule and go even further in leveraging our international student programs to foster global understanding and empathy among even more students, at home and abroad, regardless of class or nation. If we do this, we might just replace fear with solidarity.