Effort to push immigrants to join US universities seen as backfiring

Sting operations counter welcoming narrative hinted at in changes to residency rules

August 25, 2019
university flags
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New steps by the US government to incentivise immigrants to attend university may prove counterproductive, scaring away the talented foreigners the US says it hopes to keep, their allies and advocates are warning.

The Trump administration this month listed college completion among a set of favourable markers for immigrants seeking permanent residency, signalling a desire for foreigners to take up university study in the US.

But some in higher education believe that will be insufficient to overcome other moves intimidating talented foreign nationals early in their educational careers, including the use of fake universities for immigration sting operations, one of which resulted in the arrests earlier this year of 130 foreign students who enrolled at a fictional institution in Michigan.

That government tactic of creating fake universities for immigration stings got a setback earlier this month when a federal appeals court sided with the students caught in a 2013 case in New Jersey.

That ruling – which hinged on complicated questions about timing and procedures – may eventually benefit students arrested in the Michigan case, said Russell Abrutyn, an attorney representing some of them.

But legal considerations aside, Mr Abrutyn said, any short-term gains for US universities in immigrant enrolment might be outweighed by the deterrent effect created by the US broadly intimidating bright foreigners weighing up their international study options.

Such an atmosphere of fear is likely to encourage “a brain drain, as other countries attract these highly educated and hard-working individuals”, he said.

In the sting operations, the federal government created the trappings of genuine universities – including websites and assurances on official government sites that they were legitimate – and then accused those who enrolled of fraudulently holding their associated student visas.

In a separate move this month, the Trump administration announced new hurdles for immigrants, saying that any use of public assistance programmes by foreigners will count against them if they seek permanent residency status. The new criteria, set to take effect in October, also reward measures of wealth and earnings potential, including possession of a college degree.

Despite that apparent short-term incentive for foreigners to attend US colleges, some of the nation’s higher education leaders joined Mr Abrutyn in warning of longer-term harm to students and the country as a whole.

Among other problems with the new residency criteria, said Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, discouraging the use of public services – to pay for food, housing, healthcare and more – might make it harder for foreign students to attend and succeed in college.

The administration’s action, Ms Napolitano said, “sends a detrimental message internationally – that the United States does not want other countries to send their best and brightest here”.

Higher education leaders have been less critical of sting operations, including the creation of fake campuses during the Obama administration, that are aimed at deterring fraud in the student visa programme. But the ruling in the New Jersey case suggested that the government’s methods might not be treating fairly the hundreds of students – many from China and India – who have been caught in them.

The students in both the Michigan and New Jersey cases have argued that they were fundamentally tricked by the government’s own assurances that its fictitious universities were genuine.

The latest US government figures show that new enrolments of foreign students at US universities declined by 6.6 per cent in the 2017-18 academic year, a second straight year of decreases.

Students caught in the Michigan sting operation are now contributing to that downward trend, despite the promising developments in the New Jersey case, Mr Abrutyn said. “I believe most of the affected students left the US,” he said. “I don’t know if any have tried to return.”


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