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A Biden Agenda

“I’m relieved,” Reyhan Ayas, a Princeton doctoral student from Turkey told me, just hours after Joe Biden was declared president-elect. “Recently, it felt like no matter how hard I studied or how hard I worked, it didn’t matter. I wouldn’t be welcome here.”

Relief was a dominant theme among the flood of messages I’ve received from international students since Biden’s election. Four years under President Donald Trump has been difficult and dispiriting for many international students, and I’ll share some of their perspectives in a minute. But first, what should international students, and international education as a whole, expect from his successor?

One of Trump’s first acts as president was to abruptly enact a travel ban, barring students and other visitors from a number of predominantly Muslim countries. On his first day in office, Biden will repeal it. Reportedly also on Biden’s Day One agenda: reinstating DACA, the Obama-era program that gave temporary legal protections to young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Trump had ended the program and defied a Supreme Court order to reopen it.

But DACA is only a temporary fix, and Biden, who served eight years as President Obama’s vice president, has pledged to give so-called dreamers a pathway to citizenship. Polls consistently show bipartisan support for DACA recipients, notes Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. The president-elect has also called for overhauling the immigration system, expanding visas for skilled workers and exempting recent graduates from Ph.D. programs in STEM fields from any caps.

“Foreign graduates of of a U.S. doctoral program should be given a green card with their degree,” Biden’s campaign platform states. “Losing these highly trained workers to foreign economies is a disservice to our own economic competitiveness.”

Hopes for comprehensive immigration reform, however, could be off-the-table even before Biden takes office. Democrats lost ground in the U.S. House, and Republicans are poised to retain control of the Senate. Even if Democrats were to win two run-off senatorial elections in Georgia, their margins could be too narrow to pass legislation as historically contentious as immigration reform.

Biden also faces a host of challenges, including surging coronavirus infections, a weak economy, and simmering racial divisions. It’s an open question where international-student issues will fall among those competing priorities.

“The rollback of the harmful policies of the past four years won’t happen overnight,” Feldblum said, “and positive change won’t be fully realized without us staying engaged, focused, and determined.”

If legislative avenues are not promising, Biden could use presidential orders to set policy — much like Trump. Trump put in place more than 400 executive actions or rules related to immigration, according to Stephen Yale-Loehr, a law professor at Cornell. He “effectively built an invisible wall.”

Through executive action, President-elect Biden could undo a number of Trump’s policies, such as a prohbition on emergency covid-relief grants going to international students. He also could use administrative orders as a way to promote his own agenda. The new president needs to give more certainty to students seeking to study in the United States, said Rachel Banks, senior director for public policy and legislative strategy for NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

“Those who choose to come to the U.S. to contribute to our campuses and our communities need to know that in choosing to do so there will be processes in place that are fair, which they can rely upon to make choices for themselves and their families.”

But like Trump, Biden could face legal challenges to his authority. States and anti-immigration organizations could try to block presidential orders and rules through litigation, Yale-Loehr said, just as colleges, business groups, and others did during Trump’s term.

Even now, a higher ed-tech coalition is suing to stop new restrictions on H-1B visas imposed by the Trump administration that would make it more difficult for international graduates to stay in the U.S. and for universities to hire foreign-born professors and researchers.

What’s more, nearly two and a half months remain before Inauguration Day, and President Trump could still enact additional policies that are unfriendly to international students. Banks expressed concern that the administration could make last-minute changes to practical training, which permits international students to gain work experience. And advocates are eyeing warily a proposed rule that would put strict time limits on student visas. If approved, it could be a “significant deterrent” to international students, Feldblum said, noting that regulatory changes are more difficult to undo than presidential orders.

More than 32,000 comments have been submitted on the draft, and officials are supposed to read every one before releasing a final rule, so opponents could potentially run out the clock. Still, Feldblum worries that the Trump administration could push through the rule on the way out the door.

International Students React

Among international students, Biden’s win — and Trump’s loss — was cheered. Many of them said they had felt under siege during the Trump administration, constantly concerned that a new policy could disrupt their studies or make it difficult to get a student visa. “I, at least, can stop being in combat mode,” Mason Ng, a graduate student at MIT, said.

“I feel relaxed as in the near future, I feel no unexpected ICE restrictions are going to be announced,” a San Jose State student from India told me. While he said he was skeptical of Biden’s promise to reform the immigration system “at least it won’t be under attack by Stephen Miller,” President Trump’s chief adviser on immigration policy.

In particular, students said they believed that Biden’s election meant that optional practical training, the popular work program for international graduates, would no longer be in peril. The Trump administration had constantly threatened to repeal or restrict OPT. A Ghananian student at Boston College noted that it is always hard for international students to secure work placements but “at least organizations and institutions would not have to deal with executive orders that frustrate employers.”

It wasn’t just policy changes that made international students feel unwelcome. “Being an international student in the U.S. during the Trump administration, it was easy for me to see right vs wrong, but hard for me to feel like I could say something because I kept feeling out of place,” said Atharva Bhagwat, a student at Drexel University. “With Biden, I feel an increased sense of inclusion in American society and feel more valued than I did before.”

International-student advisers and other educators also expressed relief on their students’ behalf:

But Santiago Castiello-Gutiérrez, a doctoral candidate in higher education at the University of Arizona, questioned whether attitudes that have been hostile to outsiders would change overnight just because a new president was in office. “To sum it up, I have mixed feelings. I am relieved, happy, ecstatic to see Trump out of the White House. This country that has hosted me and my wife, and that regardless of our future will always be the birthplace of my son, deserved better,” he wrote me.

“At the same time, I am shocked that a whole lot of people were able to vote for him because they really support his agenda or because they were willing to tolerate his rhetoric and blatant actions of discrimination as long as they could keep their status quo.”

Ayas, the Turkish Ph.D. student, said the election outcome “gives me faith. Faith that I just won’t be deported because someone had a mood swing. Faith that I’m welcome.”

That the new vice president would be Kamala Harris, “daughter of immigrants who came here just like me is a nice added bonus.”

I’ll have more on what the new administration means for all aspects of international education, from study abroad to overseas partnerships, in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, send me your questions, your feedback, and your ideas for future coverage to, or find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Blue Universities

After the 2016 election, international educators created the #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign, trying to send the message that no matter the politics of the president, colleges and their local communities still embraced international students.

There’s no question that collegetowns are more-liberal oases, even in red states. Over at the Weekly Dispatch, another Open Campus newsletter, Scott Smallwood took a look at how the counties that are home to flagship universities voted in the election. (Alaska doesn’t report county-level results, and in states with multiple flagships, he picked just one.) Some findings:

  • Biden won 41 of those 49 counties, one more than Hillary Clinton managed in 2016.
  • Clinton beat Trump, on average, by 18 percentage points in counties with a public flagship. Preliminary numbers show Biden widening that victory, with an average of a 23-point margin in those same counties.
  • In total, 44 of the 49 counties shifted further in the Democrats’ direction compared to 2016.

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Around the Globe

Tougher coronavirus testing requirements could make it more difficult for Chinese students to travel home.

At least 22 people were killed in a terror attack on Kabul University.

A federal judge refused to drop charges against a researcher accused of concealing work he was doing for China while employed at the University of Kansas.

A professor in New Zealand is under review by her employer after she wrote a paper on links between the country’s universities and the Chinese military.

Australian universities were unsuccessful in their efforts to get lawmakers to exclude them from legislation that would allow the government to cancel foreign partnerships.

Canada’s government has announced it wants to welcome more immigrants, which universities say could be a boon to attracting international students.

Egypt plans to open new universities to meet the demands of a growing population.

Thailand’s king handed out diplomas at a recent commencement ceremony, raising concerns that the university might share student data during security screening.

Poland’s education minister has threatened to hold up scholarships and research funding if universities continue to permit students and professors to participate in anti-abortion protests.

The pandemic has not limited international scientific work, although researchers fear it could have an impact on funding.

Students in France have been ordered to study at home as a second wave of the coronavirus spreads across the country.

Students at a British university pulled down “prison-like” fencing erected on campus at the start of a nationwide covid lockdown.

The University of Toronto and the University of Illinois system are starting a cross-border educational consortium to tackle economic, environmental, and social challenges in the Great Lakes region.

And finally…

A couple on lockdown in Singapore got so tired of the view out their window that they started a website sharing snapshots of what it looked like from their friends’ windows elsewhere. Now you can go to WindowSwap and enjoy views that users have submitted from around the world.

Over recent days, I’ve gotten to see so much of America out the car window as I traveled back to San Francisco from Maine — I heard the announcement of the final election results on NPR somewhere outside Laramie. But I know I’ll be logging in once I’m home, vicariously traversing the globe, seeking to satisfy my wanderlust.

’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.