Photo by Artyom Kabajev on Unsplash

While immigration and visa issues were raised during Thursday night’s presidential debate, international students weren’t singled out for discussion.

Nonetheless, student visas are very much in the spotlight in the final days of the presidential campaign. The public-comment period closes today (Monday) on a potentially consequential and far-reaching rule change that would impose strict limits on the time international students can stay in the United States. And last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced a series of arrests and enforcement actions targeted at allegations of fraud in the optional practical training program.

Operation OPTical Illusion — puns DHS’s — has been investigating potential abuse of OPT since January, so it’s possible that the timing of the arrests of 15 students and visa revocations for 1,100 more was coincidental. Still, the framing of the OPT case and of the proposed new rule echo what’s been a central theme of both the Trump campaign and the Trump administration, that American jobs are under threat from outsiders, including international students.

“Every one of those fraudulent work permits does take a job from Americans,” Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of homeland security said in announcing the arrests. He called the investigation “another example” of the Trump administration “putting America first.”

From the first days of the current presidency, international-student policy has been under scrutiny, from the travel ban to increased social-media vetting to new restrictions on students from China. As the election comes to a conclusion, there is little sign officials are letting up on the gas.

When it comes to the OPT investigation, it was no secret that DHS had been taking a closer look at work authorizations, checking students’ documents, asking for missing paperwork, and conducting visits to work sites over recent months. With the rapid growth in participation, one in five current student-visa holders is actually on OPT.

What was more of a bombshell: That administration officials placed blame on college staff who oversee the student-visa database on their campuses. In his remarks, Cuccinelli accused college administrators of “willful ignorance or a level of negligence” and said the government would terminate some from their role as designated school officials.

Many DSOs quickly pushed back, noting that it’s not their job to vet or investigate employers.

Still, there’s been an effort to shift more of the oversight of OPT onto colleges. Last fall, the government issued policy guidance that made college officials responsible for reviewing and confirming that students’ work on OPT is directly tied to their field of study. Previously, an Obama-administration rule change put more of an onus on colleges to approve students’ training plans.

Cuccinelli, however, went much further, seemingly arguing that colleges were in some way culpable for abuse of OPT.

Meanwhile, as I mentioned, comments close today on the proposed rule limiting international students to fixed two- or four-year terms of stay in the U.S. As of Sunday evening, there were more than 26,400 statements submitted to the Federal Register. Here’s my analysis of the comments.

And the New York Times editorial board weighed in against the rules change: “This amounts to a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist, since the federal government has had ample monitoring mechanisms in place since the 9/11 attacks to keep tabs on foreign students.”

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‘Stranded’ Students

International students who remain in the U.S. during the pandemic face stressors that have led college-health officials to single them out as a vulnerable population in need of special attention. In a recent article, I talked with students about how they’re holding up and with colleges about how they’re providing support. At El Camino College, outside Los Angeles, Lindsey Ludwig and her international-student programs staff hold weekly town halls. “Everything is so up in the air that it’s sometimes just good that they can see us,” she told me.

Read about how other colleges are stepping up.

Want to weigh in with your experience? Or do you have ideas for future coverage? Email me at or send me a message on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Colleges File H1-B Lawsuits

Colleges and higher-ed associations are joining with business and industry groups to challenge new rules on H1-B visas, saying that they would cause an “enormous loss of productivity, creativity, and innovation.”

In a pair of lawsuits filed in California and D.C., the plaintiffs seek to block changes that would narrow the eligibility requirements for the skilled worker visas and increase the wages that employers must pay.

For higher ed, restrictions to H1-Bs can cut in two ways: They can make U.S. colleges less attractive for talented students who see an American degree as the first step in a path to working here. And can make it tough for colleges as employers who seek to hire top foreign-born professors and researchers.

“If these rules stand, they will undercut an historical advantage for American universities and industry, to the detriment of society as a whole,” President Thomas F. Rosenbaum of CalTech, one of the universities filing suit, said.

Failure to Disclose Foreign Money

The U.S. Department of Education is accusing colleges of “pervasive noncompliance” in reporting foreign gifts and contracts. In a new report, the department said its more aggressive enforcement of federal requirements led to the disclosure of $6.5 billion in previously unreported funds.

Some of the country’s wealthiest universities are the largest recipients of foreign funds, yet many have failed to exercise appropriate or adequate controls, Reed Rubinstein, acting general counsel, said during a press event. The department also unveiled a database that will allow the public to search for the gifts or contracts received by individual colleges and by donor country.

In response, Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education said that colleges are “anxious and willing to comply with all federal reporting requirements” but that the department has repeatedly refused to meet with higher-ed groups to discuss the requirements or to answer questions submitted in writing.

Around the Globe

During the presidential debate, former vice president Joe Biden said he would put Dreamers, young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, on a pathway to citizenship if elected.

A new OECD report found a worldwide gender gap in students’ access to opportunities to learn global competence as well as in their global and intercultural skills and attitudes.

China’s foreign ministry complained that the U.S. government is using its “judicial power to wantonly harass and interrogate Chinese students.”

European Union countries have signed onto a declaration on academic freedom and safeguarding the integrity of scientific research.

Activists have been detained for supporting a Tsinghua professor who was an outspoken critic of the Chinese government.

The appointment of a non-Uighur head to lead a top university in Xinjiang province is feared to be an erosion of academic autonomy in a region that is home to China’s Muslim minority.

Polish academics are protesting a new education minister, saying that someone who has expressed homophobic, xenophobic, and “backwards” views shouldn’t be in a position of authority.

Lecturers in Cameroon convicted of terrorism and secession have been sentenced to life in prison.

India’s government could require universities to get prior approval before they sign agreements with neighboring countries.

Russia has failed in its efforts to elevate any of its institutions into the top echelon of international university rankings.

And finally…

When young climate activist Greta Thunberg came to the U.S. last year for a UN climate summit she traveled by yacht in order to avoid the carbon emissions caused by air travel. But a new study by the UK Centre for Climate and Social Transformation found that climate-change scientists are more likely to fly than researchers in other fields.

While climate scientists had “significantly” more air travel than colleagues, they also were more likely to offset their carbon footprint. Still, one of the study’s lead researchers said it illustrates how even highly aware scientists “struggle to square their environmental commitments with competing professional and personal demands, and academia itself is not doing enough to change this culture.”

The pandemic has limited travel, but this remains an especially salient question for international educators. I spoke with a founder of the Climate Action Network for International Education about struggling to find the right path.

’’Til next week — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.