Resetting the clock edition

Trump uses regulations (snore) and bureaucracy (snooze) to change the visa system

A Regulatory Strategy Takes Shape

It can sometimes seem like there’s a drumbeat of bad news in international education, so it’s nice to be able to write about a sort-of positive development: A U.S. district court issued a preliminary injunction Friday blocking Homeland Security enforcement of a new “unlawful presence” policy that could bar international students from the U.S. for relatively minor visa infractions.

I add the caveat because, of course, the ruling merely temporarily blocks the new policy while the court case – brought by three colleges, a community-college district, and a group of international students – is argued.

The rollout of the travel ban got a lot of ink, and rightly so. But unlawful presence is an example of how the Trump administration is using regulations and bureaucracy to affect the visa and immigration systems. Such strategies – reinterpreting visa rules, directing consular officers to apply greater scrutiny to applicants – are low profile but potentially far-reaching.

Take unlawful presence. On the face of it, the policy change seems minor and, well, kind of reasonable. It resets the clock for when to begin calculating that an international student or scholar is unlawfully present in the U.S. In the past, the count started when a government official or immigration judge determined that the visa holder was out-of-status. Under the new policy memorandum, it begins when the visa violation is said to have occurred.

So what? Is it such a big deal when you start the clock? Shouldn’t there be a penalty for breaking visa rules?

The problem with backdating unlawful presence is that the immgration system is notorious for its processing delays. Nor are infractions always discovered right away. A person who is unlawfully present in the U.S. for more than 180 days is barred from reentering the country for three years; after a year, the ban is raised to 10 years. Potentially, a student could hit the 180-day mark before her case is even adjudicated.

The other issue is that a student can fall out-of-status for relatively minor infractions, such as failing to update her address with her college when moving. Sometimes, the student isn’t even responsible – a college administrator could make a typographical error or enter an erroneous transfer date, an employer could fail to update a training plan for post-graduate OPT. A three-year ban is a high price to pay for a typo. (For more analysis, I recommend these NAFSA resources.)

Look, I haven’t seen reports of a massive uptick of students and scholars running afoul of unlawful presence in the three months the new policy was in force. But it’s one more seemingly small regulatory change made under the Trump administration that cumulatively could send the message to international students and scholars that they are less-than-welcome here.

And that, I’m afraid, is bad news.

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‘Not In the National Interest’

No. That’s what the Pentagon said to all 13 universities that applied for waiver to allow them to continue to receive federal funding for Chinese-language programs while hosting Confucius Institutes.

The colleges had been hoping to get a pass on a new policy included in last year’s defense spending bill. But a Defense Department spokeswoman said officials had determined “it is not in the national interest to grant waivers to this provision.”

Since the waiver decision, three institutions – San Francisco State University, the University of Oregon, and Western Kentucky University – have announced they will close their Chinese-government-funded language and culture centers rather than lose their federal Chinese Language Flagship programs. Three other universities didn’t even wait for the waiver outcome before cutting ties.

When it comes to dollars and cents, it probably wasn’t a tough call. Oregon’s Chinese Flagship program, for instance, has received nearly $3.8 million in U.S. government grants since the 2016-17 academic year.

I suggested a few weeks ago that for all heated rhetoric around Confucius Institutes what actually might spell their end is a calculation that they’re not worth it. It seems like some administrators are doing that math.


  • In a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations, FBI director Christopher A. Wray warned about the threat of Chinese academic espionage, admonishing colleges to be on guard against students and scholars poaching sensitive or valuable research. Universities must be “much more sophisticated and thoughtful about how others may exploit the very open, collaborative research environment that we have in this country,” he said. But Wray praised a number of institutions for taking what he called “responsible steps” to safeguard intellectual property.

  • In the wake of censorship complaints, academic publisher Brill has terminated its relationship with Beijing-based Higher Education Press to produce four China-focused journals. Scholars said they had been led to believe that the journals would be published according to standards of academic freedom when really they were subject to Chinese state censors.

OPT – You Tell Me

Are you an international students (or do you advise them)? I want to hear about your experience with Optional Practical Training for an upcoming article. How easy – or how hard – has it been to find work? Did you find employers well-versed in the program and willing to sponsor you? What do you wish you had known before you began the process?

Tell me your stories! I’m at

Around the World

A forum on human rights in Palestine went ahead at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst on Saturday after a federal judge ruled against students who had sued to stop it. They argued that the panel was anti-Semitic and should be moved off campus.

Schools and universities in Sri Lanka were to reopen Monday, holding classes for the first time since the Easter bombings.

A coalition of civil-rights, pro-immigrant, and other progressive groups are calling on colleges not to hire former Trump administration officials who were involved in the family-separation policy.

Turns out the admissions-bribery scandal had an international twist after all: Chinese families paid the most in the scam. One family allegedly spent $1.2 million to get their daughter into Yale, while another is said to have shelled out $6.5 million.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Magazine has the details about a cheating ring masterminded by a Chinese graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles. Liu Cai was caught when he charged 39 registration payments for English-proficiency tests to his credit card.

Time for some Canada-splaining: Why the college-admissions scandal would never happen up north.

Diversity Abroad has published new guidelines and an assessment tool for access, inclusion, diversity, and equity in study abroad.

“I am from a city owned by a country that I don’t belong to,” began an Emerson College student’s column on her Hong Kong identity. Cue the firestorm.

My reporting is made stronger by all of you. Have international news or an idea for a feature? Tweet me @karinfischer.

And finally…

Saturday was the centenary of one of the most consequential student protests in Chinese history. The May 4, 1919 demonstrations were precipitated by territorial concessions made in the Versailles Peace Conference, but the students marched under the banners of “Mr. Democracy” and “Mr. Science,” advocating that a new China be built on the ideals of open inquiry and modern science.

There are a lot of wonderful pieces out there about May 4, but one of the best is from omni-talented Yangyang Chen. She wrestles with May 4th’s legacy, her own experience as a Chinese-born physicist, and whether scientific truths can lead to political freedom. Here’s a taste:

“Do science and freedom go hand-in-hand? In the country I left 10 years ago, the beginning of the past century saw science as a rallying cry for national renewal. In the many decades since, science was used as a cause for political struggle. It was hailed as the most potent productive force and branded a counter-revolutionary crime. It was the most worshipped and, at times, most vilified.”

’Til next week – Karin

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