International students relieved by reversal of Trump-era visa policy

OISA+Director+Andrea+Popa

OISA Director Andrea Popa

By Camilo Fonseca, News Editor

Much of Emerson’s international student community is breathing a sigh of relief after a Trump administration rule that would have limited the amount of time international students could spend in the United States was withdrawn earlier this summer. 

Proposed by the Department of Homeland Security last year, the rule was formally rescinded by Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on July 6. Had it been implemented, it would have replaced the existing policy for international students, which allows F-1 visa holders to stay for the duration of their studies; instead, the new rule would have established a fixed period of admission of two-to-four years, effectively limiting any academic extensions students might seek.

“Some students would only have been given a two-year admission to the U.S.,” said Andrea Popa, director of Emerson’s Office of International Student Affairs. “They would have had to file an immigration petition to extend it—a type of application that is [typically] pending for over a year. It wasn’t a realistic prospect for students. It was mean-spirited, anti-immigrant, and inappropriately inflexible.”

Because of the rule’s negative ramifications for international students—which made up 13 percent of Emerson’s population last year—the college took a strong stance against its implementation. As part of the 30-day public comment period that follows most federal proposals, OISA formally lodged a letter of complaint, arguing that the rule would limit academic flexibility and would only put students in “greater danger of falling out of legal status.”

“There was enormous opposition,” Popa said. “The comments submitted by Emerson, as well as by individual students, pointed out some obvious reasons why this was an inappropriate rule. It really would have been crippling to the academic research and clinical populations in the U.S.” 

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The college’s formal letter to DHS joined a wave of outcries from across the country, including political figures such as Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy. In total, the government received over 32,000 comments during the 30-day period—with 99 percent of them in opposition to the change, according to the Federal Register.

A significant factor in the overturning of the proposal, Popa said, was the reactions of international students.

“We held info sessions for students—sort of an advocacy toolkit where we told them how to speak up against the rule, how to contact their senators about certain pieces, et cetera,” she said. “We reached out to student leaders and the international student population, just saying, ‘This will affect you really poorly if it goes through; we’re hopeful it will blow over, but we really need to take action to make sure this doesn’t go through.’”

For international students like sophomore Nicole Abrate, the proposed rule brought yet another worrying development in an academic year already dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“There was a lot of pressure, like [the sense that] you need to get everything done in four years,” she said. “You don’t really feel wanted, because it’s like you need to leave as soon as possible.”

The reversal, Abrate said, not only lifted a weight off the shoulders of international students, but also gave Emerson’s international engagement programs the chance to thrive again after a year curtailed by travel restrictions and xenophobia.

“I would say you feel more accepted now—I can see there are way more international students than last semester,” Abrate said. “Honestly, it feels way better.”

Yankel Gelman, a sophomore visual and media arts major from Mexico, remembered hearing about the proposal when OISA first publicized it last year. Given the challenges already faced by international students, he said he’d been pessimistic about the process, even as he recognized that it might not come to fruition.

“It’s already a pretty hard process just getting a visa and staying here,” he said. “I wasn’t necessarily fazed by it as much; it just sounded like a vague threat. If it had become more real, I would have been a bit more worried then—but there’s so much anti-immigration sentiment thrown around that it’s kind of hard to take everything seriously.”

Nevertheless, Gelman said he was relieved when he heard that the Biden administration had reversed the policy.

“Knowing now that it’s for sure not going to happen is obviously a very nice thing,” he said.

The Biden administration’s rescindment of the policy is welcomed by international students like Gelman, who said he is still “figuring out” his plans after his four years at Emerson,

“If I could just naturally get a job here, or become a citizen somewhat quickly, that’d be my plan,” he said. “But because it is so complicated, I have to navigate that and see, ‘What’s the best option?’ Whether it’s just going back to Mexico, or trying to find my way here to continue with graduate school or something.”

Abrate agreed with Gelman, saying that the lack of a fixed visa window is encouraging for her plans to extend her stay in the U.S.

“I just added another major,” she said, having added writing, literature, and publishing to her original journalism portfolio. “I would like to do more things after finishing my studies at Emerson—and if possible, I would like to continue to study in the United States, because I’ve really liked my experience here so far. The fact that [the old policy] allows me to stay longer is good.”

The decision to reject the proposal, Popa said, was significant even if many students didn’t immediately feel any significant changes to their own status.

“Even if some students didn’t quite understand what was going on, it’s kind of a really big deal,” she said. “‘Duration of status’ is a protection that international students rely on, whether they know it or not. As in the weeds as it was, it was important to speak up against it. We’re really pleased that it’s been resolved in the correct way, giving students the appropriate flexibility to study and change their minds and to take a longer time, without needing government intervention.”

Frankie Rowley contributed reporting to this story.