Coordinating a national strategy to attract international students – similar to those that have proved successful in other key destination countries – would “be very difficult” in the US, panelists indicated at an AIRC-hosted session.

“Even if the Democrats get control of the Senate, it would be very tough”

Additionally, executive orders on Chinese students linked with the Chinese army will remain a key sticking point in the incoming Biden administration.

“If we had a wish list [for the new administration], at the top of them would be a pathway to permanent residency in the US, [and] the removal of or the allowance of dual intent,” urged Brad Farnsworth, vice president, Global Engagement at the American Council on Education.

Currently, if student visa applicants do not entirely convince visa officers that they intend to return to their home country after graduation, officers “are authorised to to reject [the] visa application”, he said.

As part of an issue brief, NAFSA has also called on congress to support the sector and international students by expanding dual intent to include foreign student F-visas.

Dual intent is currently available in other nonimmigrant categories such as specialty workers (H-1B) and intracompany transferees (L-1), and a change would permit individuals to “communicate an interest in staying in the country after the completion of their degree” during their screening or when entering the country, NAFSA has said.

“Dual intent means that during the interview, the student can say, ‘I’m not sure. I think I might come back and continue my career in my home country. But I think I also might want to stay in the US and apply for permanent residency. I would like to wait and see’ – that’s dual intent. That is the kiss of death in the application process [currently],” Farnsworth explained.

“If we were to change this, it would require legislation. And I’m not optimistic. Even if the Democrats get control of the Senate, it would be very tough in my opinion.”

Rescinding executive orders – particularly on duration of status – should be “easy, low hanging fruit” for the incoming administration, Farnsworth suggested, adding that ACE has already sent a letter to the new administration with a “relatively short list of things they can do right away”.

However, orders specific to China are “concerning” – such as rules limiting Chinese students with ties to the military, he continued.

The only way to understand the patterns of acceptance and rejection on the ground are by “comparing notes”, he added.

The first place US educators ought to travel when possible is to China to meet US consular officials, suggested Institute of International Education president Allan E. Goodman.

“Part of the [adjudicating officer’s] job is to make sure that legitimate students get visas to come here to study,” he said.

“[We ought to] ask how they are implementing this regulation… We know where we’re worried about this. We know consular officials are important to our lives. Let’s visit them up front. Let’s hear from their side.”

The rule is “tremendously unpopular in China”, Farnsworth added, and it “is going to be a much harder lift politically.”

Other stakeholders have previously suggested that US-China relations will be a “major theme” under Biden’s administration.

While “we obviously have had many frustrations with with the Trump presidency”, the administration has  “really helped to mainstream and legitimise the use of agents in international student recruiting”, Farnsworth added.

He also highlighted that the “softening of demand” for international students coming to the US preceded the Trump presidency.

“We knew that when it came to market share, to mobility patterns and other nation states, that the competition for international students was already fierce [before the 2016 elections],” president of Campus Life & Inclusive Excellence at American University Fanta Aw agreed.

Attempts to coordinate a national strategy will still be limited, she added.

“We’ve seen how the models in other places have worked effectively and how that’s been really a deficit here in the US.

“I’m not sure in the next administration whether there will be an appetite and frankly, bandwidth to engage in [a strategy],” she continued.

Issues between the departments of state and education impede progress, Aw suggested, while the department of commerce is the “third leg of the stool” that is missing.

“If there were a coordinated effort and to be able to partner with the major organisations on the ground, that that would be really needed,” she said.

“It’s so fragmented and there is such a lack of coordinated effort that I think that’s going to be very difficult. However, it’s “something worth us continuing to put on the table and continue to engage with”.

“We’ve seen how the models in other places have worked effectively”

ACE is buoyed by a “really solid base of public opinion”, Farnsworth continued, as displayed in its survey with the Charles Koch Foundation that found that 60% of Americans across the political spectrum would like to see a pathway toward permanent residency for international students.

Information around international student career pathways “will be a powerful tool as we go to this new administration and talk about some of these ideas surrounding pathways toward permanent residency in the US”, he said.

“We really know what needs to be done, particularly in the medium term, and that really is affirm the ongoing status of OPT and H-1B and all the pathways that lead to residency in the US,” Farnsworth said.

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