What a Biden Presidency Could Mean for International Students

by Evan Thompson

Updated August 17, 2022 • 4 min read


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The Trump administration's immigration policies have negatively impacted international students in the U.S., and their enrollment in colleges is down for the first time in more than a decade.

Travel bans, xenophobic rhetoric, and a public health crisis have all damaged the U.S.'s reputation as a premier educational destination.

International students will get a much warmer reception from President-elect Joe Biden, who has promised to reverse many of the Trump-era restrictions, which have made it harder to get student visas and extend stays in the country.

Biden's Plans

When he takes office, Biden will have the power to rescind Trump's executive orders immediately. According to his proposals on the campaign trail, here's what he plans to do:

Expand the eligibility criteria of H1-B visas for skilled workers. H1-B visas allow American companies to recruit foreign employees for specialty fields. For colleges, this means hiring foreign-born professors and researchers. The Trump administration narrowed eligibility requirements and increased how much employers must pay international workers to discourage them from hiring international employees.
Revoke length-of-stay limitations. on international student visas. The Department of Homeland Security's proposal in September aimed to reduce visa durations and create more narrow parameters for extension requests. Depending on their nationality, a student's visa could expire within 2-4 years of being issued.
Provide a pathway to citizenship for foreign graduates of U.S. doctoral programs. Biden aims to increase the number of visas for recent graduates of Ph.D. programs rather than lose highly-trained workers to foreign economies.
Repeal a travel ban on students from Muslim-majority countries. Biden's campaign page criticizes travel restrictions implemented by Trump's administration that prohibited people from certain — predominantly Muslim — countries from entering the U.S.
Reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. This Obama-era program gave temporary legal protection to young immigrants — often called Dreamers — who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Trump ended the program, then refused a Supreme Court order to revive it. Biden plans to restore the program and ensure that eligible students can receive federal loans and Pell grants.

Policy experts believe Biden may also grant coronavirus relief funding to international students denied federal financial aid through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March.

In addition to executive orders, Trump-era rules also could be undone by Congress. The Congressional Review Act allows Congressional lawmakers to revoke regulations from federal agencies.

Long-Term Outlook

Advocates for foreign nationals view Biden's election as a crucial victory. According to Jenny Lee, an educational policy studies professor at the University of Arizona, Biden could potentially pursue even more sweeping immigration changes through Congress.

"It would be especially important to not only reverse Trump's xenophobic policies but also combat the damaging rhetoric that has been used against internationals for so long," she told Education Dive.

"It would be especially important to not only reverse Trump's xenophobic policies but also combat the damaging rhetoric that has been used against internationals for so long," she said.

Biden has voiced his support for international students on many occasions. For example, he criticized the Trump administration's controversial order to kick international students out of the country if their classes went online-only because of the pandemic.

"Across the world, people come to this country with unrelenting optimism and determination toward the future," Biden tweeted in July. "They study here, innovate here, they make America who we are."

Across the world, people come to this country with unrelenting optimism and determination toward the future. They study here, innovate here, they make America who we are. Donald Trump doesn't get that — we need a president who does. https://t.co/0VK0MCXMVq

— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) July 7, 2020

International students are a key demographic in higher education in the United States, with more than a million of them studying at U.S. colleges every year. They boost tuition revenue for colleges and bolster the workforce. In 2018, international students contributed roughly $41 billion to the U.S. economy.

But America's reputation as a host nation has taken a hit, and Biden will have his work cut out for him. An analysis from NAFSA: Association of International Educations found that the U.S. share of the 5.3 million international students worldwide dropped from 28% in 2001 to 21% last year. It also estimates that international students contributed $38.7 billion to the U.S. economy in 2019-2020 — a 4.4% decline from the year before.

The lack of a coordinated national COVID-19 pandemic response has made enrollment numbers worse. According to a recent survey of more than 700 colleges, new enrollments dropped by 43% this fall. The total number of international students studying in the U.S. also decreased by 16%.

However, 90% of the responding institutions also reported widespread student deferrals. According to the survey, nearly 40,000 international students could be planning to return to their studies in a future term.

Portrait of

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

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