Global

Trump’s New Order on Visas Could Make American Colleges Less Appealing Overseas

April 19, 2017

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In a visit to a tool manufacturer in Wisconsin on Tuesday, President Trump signed an executive order to overhaul the H-1B visa program, which he said should be limited to "only the most skilled and highest-paid applicants." Colleges fear that, as with his previous orders banning travel from some majority-Muslim nations, the president’s latest move could deter foreign students from seeking to enroll on American campuses.
Yet again a Trump-administration executive order has the potential to roil American campuses and their recruitment of international students.

President Trump on Tuesday signed a measure that would target fraud and abuse in overseas guest-worker programs and increase federal oversight of the H-1B visa program for highly skilled foreigners.

Higher education ranks third behind technology-related occupations as the largest industry sponsor of recipients of H-1B visas. But colleges’ chief concern is not likely to be the visa holders — typically, professors, researchers, and postdocs — on their payrolls.

Rather, the order could have an impact on American colleges’ recruitment of students from abroad. For many international students, the opportunity to stay in the United States, even temporarily, after graduation and gain work experience is almost as valuable as an American degree itself. Any policy that might erect hurdles on the pathway from college to work could depress international enrollments.

Colleges already had been bracing for a potential "Trump effect" on foreign-student numbers next fall after the president signed a pair of earlier executive orders, since challenged in the courts, that would temporarily bar the issuance of U.S. visas to travelers, including students and scholars, from six Muslim-majority countries. A recent global survey of prospective students found that one in three potential applicants was less likely to want to study in the United States because of the political climate there.

Many people overseas had interpreted the proposed travel bans as a first step by the Trump administration to tighten American borders and close off the country’s job market to outsiders. Headlines in India, for example, have been sounding the alarm for weeks about possible restrictions on H-1B and other visa programs.

India is second only to China as a source of the more than one million international students now on American campuses.

The new executive order may only reinforce the perception of the United States as unwelcome to people from other countries.

A Long Process

But Mr. Trump, echoing the "America First" themes of his presidential campaign, said at an event at a Wisconsin toolmaker that the measure was needed to "restore the American dream" and to prevent the "theft of American prosperity."

For too long, he said, companies have used and abused the H-1B program to fire Americans and replace them with lower-cost foreign employees. Instead, the president said, the H-1B program, in which demand regularly outstrips the limited supply of visas, should be limited to "only the most skilled and highest-paid applicants."

That emphasis, on the most highly skilled workers, could actually have the potential to benefit foreign graduates of American colleges.

While it is unclear exactly what shape reforms of the H-1B program may take, in a background briefing before the president signed the order, an unnamed senior administration official indicated that it could be modified to favor workers with advanced degrees. But whether preference might be given to graduates of American universities was far from clear.

The order instructs the secretary of state, the attorney general, the secretary of labor, and the secretary of homeland security to suggest, "as soon as practicable," new rules and guidance for the H-1B program. New regulations, however, can take months, and sometimes even years, to put in place.

American colleges have long advocated broader reforms of the immigration system, saying that the government should make it easier for the brightest foreign-born graduates to stay and work in the United States, particularly in high-demand science and engineering fields.

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter @karinfischer, and her email address is karin.fischer@chronicle.com.