According to the Migration Policy Institute, the U.S. houses 1.1 million international students, a number greater than any other country. The top position owes to the high-quality higher education system, welcoming culture and relatively open labor market of the United States. However, according to a Guilford College International Club lawsuit, a new federal policy may make the U.S. a slightly less welcoming destination for international students.
For most international students to maintain their legal status, they must either be currently enrolled in a course of study or find work within 90 days of graduation.
In August, the federal government issued a new ruling dictating when an international student becomes “out of status.”
In October 2018, Guilford joined three other colleges in a federal lawsuit challenging the new federal policy on international students which makes it easier for students on M, J and V visas to acquire “unlawful presence” in the U.S. This means it is easier for an international student to lose the right to continue studying in the U.S. which could likely lead to deportation with a hefty three to 10-year reentry ban.
“Basically now, there is no opportunity to talk to an immigration judge if you’re caught of status,” said Assistant Director of the Office of Study Abroad Robert Van Pelt.
Under the old policy, international students began acquiring unlawful presence the day after they were alerted of a status violation via an official notification from the Department of Homeland Security, or a judge issued a deportation order. By contrast, the new policy mandates that a student will have acquired unlawful presence since the day the student allegedly fell out of status, even if the student was not alerted at the time.
“Now, when a government official or immigration judge determines that an F, J, or M visa holder is out-of-status, the unlawful-presence clock will be backdated to the day on which Defendants conclude that the visa holder first fell out-of-status,” the lawsuit filed against U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina states. “The immigration system is beset with processing delays, and many of these status determinations are made when an individual is applying for new immigration benefits. Thus, the new policy’s use of a backdated unlawful-presence clock will render tens of thousands of F, J, and M visa holders subject to three- and ten-year reentry bars without any opportunity to cure.”
Many in the Guilford community feel that the new policy is unreasonable.
“If we are considering this legal bottleneck, I would say it is a bottleneck that was initiated by people who do not see a more equal world for all,” said senior Spencer File, a member of Amnesty International. “This federal, legal bottleneck is archaic for our place in time.”
The lawsuit lists multiple ways international students can acquire unlawful status, including failing to provide their college with a change in address, failure to obtain approval for dropping below a minimum course load, or working more than the allowable 20 hours per week without permission. Unlawful status could also begin accruing if the college makes an error while reporting a student’s information.
Since these violations can go unnoticed for some time, international students may find themselves with enough time to avoid the reentry bars which occur 180 days after acquiring “unlawful presence.”
“Many of these determinations rest on discretionary judgments by USCIS,” the lawsuit states. “Under the prior policy, the unlawful-presence clock began after USCIS made these often-discretionary adjudications. That provided individuals 180 days to order their affairs and exit the country without accruing any reentry bar — or to otherwise regain status and avoid a reentry bar …
“The August 2018 Policy Memorandum, however, will backdate unlawful presence. That means that individuals will have less than 180 days, or often no time at all, to leave the country prior to being subject to a reentry bar.”
Guilford’s International Club is officially a party to the suit. Several staff and faculty also stated support for the lawsuit.
“I think it is really amazing that Guilford is taking a stand against it, and standing up for our international students, and the students impacted by the decision,” said Immigrant Student Coordinator Liz Torres Melendez. “I think it is a very unfortunate decision that the Trump administration has made which further proves that they don’t care about immigrants.”