Student visa shift drawing criticism in Arkansas

Time-limit plan called impractical

University of Arkansas students are shown on the lawn in front of Old Main on the campus in Fayetteville in this file photo.
University of Arkansas students are shown on the lawn in front of Old Main on the campus in Fayetteville in this file photo.

FAYETTEVILLE -- A proposed federal rule setting two- and four-year time limits on student visas has drawn strong opposition from some academic leaders in Arkansas and national education organizations.

The proposal aims to "encourage program compliance, reduce fraud and enhance national security," according to a statement last month from the federal Department of Homeland Security. Students would be allowed to apply to extend their stays.

Several colleges in Arkansas and elsewhere have reported recent declines in the number of international students. Opposition to the rule from education leaders in the state and elsewhere cites how a change would result in uncertainty for students and unwarranted barriers to enrollment.

Imposing fixed time limits on student visas is "completely impractical for longer degree programs, such as PhD programs and medical training programs in the United States," states a 16-page letter dated Monday from the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.

The letter argues in favor of the current rule, which bases the duration of stay on a foreign student's status in an educational program. The letter was submitted as part of the public comment process for the proposal. Comments were due by Monday.

University of Arkansas, Fayetteville Chancellor Joe Steinmetz is one of 14 university leaders on the group's steering committee. The alliance includes as members about 500 college leaders, according to the letter.

"International students and scholars are a valuable asset to the United States, and to the University of Arkansas, adding valuable diversity and contributions to our campus, scholarly, academic, and research enterprises and we urge for policies to help American institutions of higher education to attract and retain students," Steinmetz said in a statement to the Democrat-Gazette.

UA saw its international enrollment decline to 1,211 students this fall from 1,408 in fall 2019, even as overall enrollment held almost steady despite the ongoing pandemic, according to preliminary data.

Separately, the American Council on Education, joined by more than 80 other educational organizations -- including the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities -- also commented in opposition to the rule.

Some educational leaders in Arkansas who work closely with international students also submitted comments.

Phillip Bailey, associate vice president for international education and engagement at the University of Central Arkansas, wrote in a public comment that the proposal "would have a profoundly negative impact."

UCA enrolls more than 400 international students, according to Bailey, who stated in the comment that he was speaking only for himself rather than on behalf of the university.

The proposal states that a citizen of a country considered to be a "State Sponsor of Terrorism" would only be eligible for a two-year student visa. Four countries, North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Syria, currently are on the list.

A two-year limit also would be in place for residents of certain countries with "high visa overstay rates" greater than 10%. This list currently includes the Philippines and Vietnam, among other countries, according to a Homeland Security report.

But the overstay measure is flawed because it fails to take into account some who may be staying in the U.S. legally, some groups have claimed.

Bailey, in his public comment, stated that more than a quarter of UCA's international students would be eligible only for two-year student visas based on their home country.

"My office does not have the staff required to help students apply for the number of extension of status requests the proposed rules will require. It is unlikely as well, that [the Citizenship and Immigration Service] has the staff to process these same applications in a timely manner," Bailey stated, also noting the cost to students.

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Graduate Student Association was among student governance groups at 51 universities to sign on to a letter in opposition to the proposed rule.

Michael Freeman, UA's director of international students and scholars, submitted comment as an individual rather than on behalf of the university.

For students in a five-year program, two renewals would end up costing $910 based on current application fees, Freeman wrote.

To apply to extend their stays, students also would have to submit biometric information, described in the proposal as fingerprints, a photograph or a digital signature.

"The student will also need to twice travel over 120 miles round trip to Fort Smith, Arkansas for the biometric appointment. Because many of our international students do not have their own transportation, the burden to find transportation for this trip falls on the student," Freeman stated.

Freeman also commented specifically about Syrian and Iranian students at UA.

"The public diplomacy efforts to bring these students to the United States to expose them to the U.S. is a great success. They are bright, well educated, motivated to succeed, and are making a positive impact on our academic and NW Arkansas community," Freeman said.

Parham Pouladsanj, president of UA's Iranian Students Association, said in a phone interview that uncertainty makes it harder for Iranian students to land opportunities in U.S. research program "even if you are the best student in the world, because they are not certain you can finish it or not."

Pouladsanj, a master's student in agricultural economics and agribusiness, said students outside the U.S. leave home for their studies "if they think they can find something better in these countries than their own home countries."

But he said his friends in Iran now are less eager to apply to a U.S. university because of lengthy delays in getting approval, the efforts by President Donald Trump to put in place a "travel ban," and proposals like the student visa rule now under consideration.

The student visa proposal specifies there would be a "transition period" that would allow students already in the U.S. to generally continue in their educational programs without having to file an extension to stay. But the proposal also specifies that, if the rule takes effect, students who leave the U.S. after that effective date would then be readmitted "with a new fixed admission period."

For students already in the U.S., the latest proposal, coming during a pandemic, "makes their own stress a hundred billion times bigger," Pouladsanj said.

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