Originally Published in The New York Times
The Editorial Board - October 24, 2020
From day one, a hallmark of the Trump administration has been its relentless assault on immigration, legal and illegal alike. President Trump’s obsession with building a wall on the southern border symbolizes that obsession and all its cruelty and uselessness. Far more insidious, though, is the invisible wall of restrictive policies, procedural changes or extreme vetting directives, lacking any justification beyond a vague and unsubstantiated reference to national security.
The latest brick in this wall is aimed at making it much harder and more expensive for foreign students, exchange visitors and journalists to work or study in the United States. The value of hosting these groups is self-evident — students and exchange visitors bring valuable perspectives (and tuition payments) and, in most cases, take back an appreciation of American life. Resident foreign journalists explain the workings of American society and democracy to audiences worldwide.
But the idée-fixe of the Trump administration is that foreigners are here to steal jobs, spy or commit crimes. So, in what may be the final days of the Trump presidency, the administration is rushing to raise the walls as high as possible, never mind the damage to America’s global standing, recruitment of talent and bottom line.
Basically, the proposed rule from the Department of Homeland Security would end the “duration of status” on visas for students, exchange visitors and journalists, under which they have been able to remain in the United States for as long their studies or work required. The “sheer size” of the population of foreigners in these categories — an average of 2.3 million in recent years — challenged the department’s ability to monitor them and thus posed an “increased risk to national security.”
This amounts to a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist, since the federal government has had ample monitoring mechanisms in place since the 9/11 attacks to keep tabs on foreign students and reporters. But that has never been enough for Kenneth Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, whose signature is on the proposed changes. A hard-core foe of immigration whose title is “senior official performing the duties of the deputy secretary of homeland security,” he accused Mr. Trump of being too soft on immigrant workers before signing on to lead the administration’s war on immigration.
The new rule, stretching to 256 pages, was quietly introduced on Sept. 25, with a 30-day comment period, which ends on Monday. After that, the immigration agency will have to review the comments, draft a final rule and send it to the Office of Management and Budget for review, a process that would stretch past the election.
The new rule has different implications for the different visa categories. For foreign journalists, a relatively small group not previously targeted by the administration as a whole, the rule would limit their stay in the United States to 240 days before a journalist had to get an extension. That amounts to a major impediment for reporters who bring their families and tend to spend several years in the United States, and knowing that a renewal always lies a few months ahead would put a serious constraint on honest reporting. The current visa time limit for foreign correspondents is five years.
Journalist visas, moreover, are often based on reciprocal agreements, and countries where American journalists are based — including allies — would be likely to retaliate for any limits on the stay of their national correspondents. That has already begun in a tit-for-tat war with China of expulsions and unextended visas.
Students and exchange visitors are by far the largest group affected by the proposed rule, accounting for more than two million visas. Most of those come from Asia, with China sending about 370,000 students, India 202,000 and South Korea 52,000. Under the new rule, students would be limited to two or four years, depending on their plan of study, instead of the current arrangement allowing them to remain in the United States so long as they are studying. Students from countries on the state sponsors of terrorism list and from countries whose citizens have a high rate of overstaying their visas — many African countries — would be restricted to two years.
That some foreigners overstay their visas, or come to spy on the United States or commit other crimes, is no surprise. It has probably always been so. But studies show that U.S. citizens born in the United States are more likely to commit crimes than immigrants. The effect of exchanging the current system for an onerous, costly and forbidding one would probably have the effect of driving students to Canada, Australia, Britain or elsewhere.
That is not a negligible threat. According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, international students in the United States contributed $41 billion to the economy and supported almost half a million jobs in the 2018-2019 academic year. Since Mr. Trump took office in 2017, the group estimated that flight of international students to other countries has already cost the economy $11.8 billion.
Dollars and jobs are not the whole story. International students and immigrants have played a major role in the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and have garnered a major share of American Nobel Prizes in the sciences. Returning to their home countries, they become a major American soft-power asset.
All these arguments have been rehashed again and again, to no avail against the administration’s tenacious efforts to keep foreigners out. No matter that foreign journalists spread the American story to the world, or that more than 12,000 foreign doctors training in American hospitals are providing critical services in a time of pandemic, or that foreign students are bolstering American universities, or that foreign workers fill important vacancies.
At the very least, the government should extend the comment period for this latest ploy to further raise the invisible wall. . Better yet, it should be scrapped outright.