Jing Huang is cheerful and outgoing. She is an epidemiology and biostatistics, nutrition intervention, communication and behavior change major studying in Tufts University. She loves dancing, photographing and cooking. She is fluent in both Mandarin and English. She holds a 3.9 GPA. She is, by most accounts, a dream student. But a new proposed rule from the government might force her out of the country before graduation.
On Sept. 25, the Department of Homeland Security announced a proposal for new regulations that will require a two- or four-year period of stay for international students, exchange visitors and foreign information media representatives. DHS says this will encourage program compliance, reduce fraud and enhance national security. DHS implies that the two-year period will only apply to a subset of the visa holders that it predetermined to be at a higher risk of violating the terms. However, the rules fail to specify which subset of holders are considered high-risk.
Currently, international students can stay in the United States legally as long as they are actively registered in their school.
However, many medical and doctoral programs take more than four years to complete. Students might not be able to obtain their diploma if the rule passes, because they will have to go back to their home country to renew their visa.
Jing Huang is on the high-risk list. If the policy is approved, she may not be able to complete her degrees in the United States.
She is not alone in this fear that she will lose everything she has worked for.
Meet Jing Huang. Video by Wenjing Ding and Hongyu Liu.
Wang is an electrical and computer engineering doctoral student from China. He asked for anonymity because he fears reprisal from the State Department if his identity is revealed. His F-1 visa is only valid for one year.
Currently, he and most students under similar situations can stay in the US legally for eight years because of the duration of status. Duration of Status, Homeland Security explained, means students may remain in the United States so long as they maintain their nonimmigrant student status.
Yet the new rule would require him to return to China and apply for a new visa at least one more time before graduation. The process will take money and time, and this is not guaranteed a second visa. As a STEM doctoral student, Wang is certain that his status in the U.S. will be invalid after two years.
“If the rule passes, they will require us to return,” Wang said. “You will have to apply for a visa after you get home. You will have to let your professor and classmates know that you are not about to return within half a year. You’ll have to be prepared for it.”
Wang predicts that he will take six years to earn his PhD. According to National Science Foundation, it takes anywhere from six to 12 years for students to finish their PhDs.
The process of applying for an F-1 visa for a STEM program takes a long time for Chinese students. Since 2018, the Trump administration has created stricter rules for students studying STEM majors applying for F-1 visas. It includes an extended period of background checks, which will take at least three months. The last time Wang applied for a visa, it took the US Embassy and Consulates in China five months to complete his background check.
He was already halfway through his first semester when he got the visa, and was unable to finish his lab projects while he was waiting in China.
Many universities responded a few days after the State Department published the proposal. The president of Michigan State University made a statement on Sept. 28. In the letter, the president wrote “the spirit of this proposed rule is deeply concerning and a flagrant disregard for the value our international students and scholars bring to American universities and colleges.” The president also said the university will submit a comment letter in opposition to the proposed rule.
Emerson College is one of the institutions that responded to the proposal. Andrea Popa, the director of the International Student Affairs Office at Emerson College, said she sent a comment on behalf of the college, urging that proposal be rescinded.
“I think the premise of the rule is faulty,” Popa said in an interview. “The rule indicates that the students come in and nobody ever checks on them. That’s not true because schools have to physically verify every student every semester.”
Aside from the possibility of being unable to finish school, Jing Huang faced uncertainties of her future career.
“I tried to find internships or job opportunities over the summer. However, I found out that most companies canceled international student internships due to the new US policy.
The new rule proposed that the student can apply for an Extension of Stay if they want to remain in the US after graduation for an Optional Practical Training. OPT is temporary employment authorization allowing F-1 students who are studying at or have graduated from US universities and colleges to remain in their F-1 student status and be authorized to work for a US employer in their field of study. OPT allows students to work in the US for up to 12 months, while the STEM students can extend their OPT status for extra 24 months through application.
However, Popa explained that it takes an applicant one year to be granted an EOS status, but the proposed rule requires the students to apply for OPT no earlier than 120 days before graduation. Plus, asking international students to apply for the EOS will overflow the system.
“It’s ridiculous to think the immigration system can keep up with that volume,” Popa said, referring to the possible number of student subjects to apply for an EOS if the rule passes.
Li, an international student from China who requested anonymity, finished his Master’s degree in engineering in 2019. He obtained an OPT training with his student visa legally and went back to China when the pandemic hit. However, when he tried to return to the U.S. to start his full time training on Oct. 2, he was stopped at the boarding gate in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The airline informed him that the Customs officials stopped him from boarding the plane. One day later, he received an email from the US embassy that his visa had been revoked.
“The fact that they revoked my visa one day after I was denied from boarding just seems random to me,” Li said
The State Department did not explain why it had revoked his visa, but Li assumed that it was because he finished his Bachelor’s degree in one of the seven Chinese civilian universities that was affiliated with the Chinese national defence project. Li asked for clarification but was given none, leaving him only with confusion.
In September, NPR reported that the State Department revoked more than a thousand Chinese students’ visas because of concern that they might have connections with the Chinese military. Like Li, most of these students once studied in one of these seven civilian universities in China.
When he failed to board the plane, Li reached out to his college’s international student office for help. However, after his visa was revoked, the college could not do anything to help.
Susan Church, an immigration attorney based in Boston who has worked on behalf of the international students for decades, said that aside from attorneys, colleges are the best advocates for students.
“Not every international student has the money to let a lawyer process the paperwork,” Church said in an interview. “There’s not enough money and not enough lawyers.”
She acknowledged that under the current scenario, even an attorney might not be able to protect students.
Church recalled she and several other colleagues trying to stop the US Customs agents at Boston’s Logan Airport from deporting an Iranian student in January of this year.
“A judge issued an order to stop the deportation, but the plane left the country anyways,” Church said. “And the order we know was issued at least half an hour before the plane departed.”
Church had to let the case go because the student left the country.
“The client had to agree to return to the country under the risk to be held in custody for god knows how long,” she said.
Church hopes the Biden administration will be kind to international students, but she recognizes there is a long way to go: “We need to make sure that we are continuing raising our voices, that we keep the Biden administration focused on rebuilding what the Trump administration destroyed.”
President-elect Joe Biden wrote in his election website that he aims to increase the number of working visas for recent graduates of PhD programs. This policy can attract more international students who aim to stay in the US after graduation. However, there is currently no proposed policy change regarding international student visa.
Wang thinks that the international students will never be able to be heard by the US government. Wang said that over 80% of his classmates are international students, but none of them expressed their dissatisfaction with the new policy, even though they dislike it.
“As a STEM student, I am taking a utilitarian approach to it. If something doesn’t work, I won’t do it,” Wang said. “We lack the right to choose. We can only adapt to these changes. Our voice is actually so feeble. Until now, we don’t have a way to conduct direct communication with the leaders of the government. It’s basically impossible.”
Jing Huang thinks the best way to let people care about international students is to speak up together. She acknowledged the importance to resist, speak up and bravely fight for their rights. She also said almost all Chinese students in her university began to protest and file complaints. They believed speaking out can be powerful.
Wenjing Ding and Hongyu Liu are journalism students at Emerson College in Boston.