Immigration rule changes ‘undermine higher education in US’

Tally of administration policy shifts shows insidious and calculated strategy posing long-term academic harm, conference hears

January 25, 2019
US border immigration
Source: iStock

US government attacks on immigration are far deeper and more consequential for higher education than many may realise both inside and outside the academy, a leading immigration lawyer has warned.

Well beyond President Donald Trump’s rhetorical assaults, official hostility to foreigners has manifested itself in a web of new procedural hurdles now grinding down the ability of students to resist and university staff to resolve, the attorney, David Ware, told academic administrators.

Some of those Trump policies have gained widespread attention, such as the administration’s move to end protections for people brought to the US illegally as children. Many others, however, are subtle but calculated bureaucratic shifts threatening far-reaching and long-lasting effects in academia, Mr Ware told the annual conference of the Association of International Education Administrators.

They include changes to rules defining the types of public benefits that could constitute becoming impermissibly dependent on government support; new definitions of actions or even requests that may represent a disqualifying change in legal status; revisions in instructional language for applicants that create rather than reduce their confusion; and numerous tightenings of filing deadlines, Mr Ware said.

“It’s all these tiny things that the agencies are doing to discourage, delay and deny,” he told the AIEA event in San Francisco.

University administrators said that, beyond the considerable stress the policy changes were creating for students, the revisions hurt them even more by disrupting the ability of colleges to serve them.

Parinaz Zartoshty, the director of international student and scholar services at San José State University, said that the changes in federal immigration rules were so numerous and rapid that she and her staff have stopped risking wrong answers and begun asking students to consult immigration lawyers.

“They feel like they need a law degree in order to do their job well,” Ms Zartoshty said of her staff. The “burnout and stress”, she said, was leading many to quit and find jobs in other areas of international student services where they don't have to talk about US immigration rules.

The immigration barriers also hindered US scientific research by putting obstacles in the way of graduate students who helped in labs and served as teachers, Ms Zartoshty said. International students accounted for about half of the software engineering and computer engineering departments at San José State, she said.

Mr Ware said the sophistication of the rule changes adopted by the Trump administration reflected the fact that anti-immigration lobbyists spent years drafting them. The key ones, he said, appeared to be NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which is classified by the Southern Poverty Law Centre as a hate group.

Many of the rule changes may be vulnerable to legal challenge on the grounds that laws passed by Congress don’t necessarily allow them, Mr Ware said. But, given the complexities and the difficult timing issues facing immigrants, he said, international students have little choice but to comply with them.

There is some good news, Mr Ware and the university administrators said, in the fact that the Trump administration is now halfway through its first term and Democrats are controlling the House, meaning that the harshest anti-immigration policies are likely already in effect.

“We’ve sort of survived the worst window for that to happen,” said Victoria Jones, chief global affairs officer at the University of California, Irvine. “It’s not the worst-case scenario.”

Overall, however, the damage inflicted amounted to the “slow degradation of the higher ed ecosystem”, Mr Ware said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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