Own our fight: Paving the path forward for international students

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Our vision for international higher education is one of collaboration and mutual success. At UC Berkeley, we all come together, study what we are passionate about and work with peers from diverse backgrounds. National origin, just like race, ethnicity and gender, should not be an obstacle to learning.

On Sept. 25, however, the Department of Homeland Security announced a proposed rule that would eliminate the current “duration of status,” or D/S, policy for international students and exchange visitors and replace it with admission for a fixed time period with a maximum of four years. Under the status quo, many international students have flexible periods of stay based on the needs of their academic programs and post-graduation Optional Practical Training, or OPT. This means that an international student is allowed to stay in the country if, for instance, their academic program is extended or they receive OPT — temporary employment in the United States in a field directly related to their studies. Under the newly proposed rule, international students and exchange visitors would need to apply for an “extension of stay,” or EOS, to extend the length of their stay for any reason, including delayed graduation or pursuit of OPT.

This new rule would hurt international students tremendously. First, the fixed four-year term (only two years for students from certain countries) is shorter than the length of a typical doctoral program and even some bachelor’s degree programs. Students who are enrolled in these programs may not get approved for extension, which would abruptly end their academic journeys. Second, EOS applications would require a processing time of five months on average, and they could be rejected based on claims or  allegations made at the discretion of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Third, the new rule would render internship opportunities for international students under OPT practically impossible, as companies would be highly disincentivized to hire a student whose legal status has yet to be approved by USCIS.

While the DHS cites “deter(ring) immigration violations and incentiviz(ing) timely departure” as justification for the proposed rule, evidence suggests otherwise. The DHS’ own statistics show that under the existing D/S system, which allows international students flexible periods of stay, overstay rates of student and exchange visitors have been steadily falling since 2016, to as low as 1.52% in 2019. Under the status quo, the DHS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement already employ the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System to collect information about and monitor international students, making them arguably one of the most monitored groups of nonimmigrants in the United States.

With the absence of sufficient justification, this policy seems a deliberate effort to impose barriers on international students and threaten the autonomy of universities and their diverse international scholarships.

Of course, this is not the first policy that has attempted to thwart international students and scholars. In July, ICE said it would not permit international students to enter the United States while taking fully online course loads.

Given the political atmosphere, we are not wholly surprised by this series of policy proposals. This year alone, our office, which represents the international student community, has fought more battles than ever.

Fortunately, we are not alone. On Oct. 6, joined by 104 of their congressional colleagues, U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and Mark Pocan, D-Wis., spearheaded an open letter to Chad Wolf, acting secretary of homeland security, calling on the DHS to respect international students’ unique contributions to U.S. higher education.

But students have power too. The UC Berkeley campus is built by each and every student who studies and lives here, and so we ought to take it upon ourselves to protect the rights and vision of our own education.

In response to the ICE order in July, students all over the country mobilized and fought to protect international students. UC students urged the UC Office of the President to sue President Donald Trump’s administration. On July 14, the DHS decided to overturn the order after joint litigation from a number of universities.

We have reached a point where we must constantly own our fights. By “our,” we mean all of us — not just international students and scholars who would be directly subject to the policy but also citizens, permanent residents and whoever else cares about the direction in which our higher education goes. We would all do better on campuses — and in a country — that protect the liberty of all students and members of society.

Therefore, we urge you to submit public comments on the Federal Register — the DHS is required to read and review them. As participants of a democracy, we must take responsibility for voicing our opinions on policies that concern us.

As U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren often says, “You don’t get what you don’t fight for.” Let’s go get it.

Rex Zhang is a UC Berkeley senior and an ASUC senator. Yuning Xue is a UC Berkeley freshman and a legislative aide in Zhang’s office.