Biden can help rebuild America's greatness by letting more international students study and stay in the US

  • International students play a critical role in advancing US interests and supporting the economy. 
  • Our visa systems and policies do not meet the demands of attracting top global talent.
  • Biden should focusing on administratively reforming our student visa system and policies.
  •  Chris Richardson, an immigration lawyer, was a US diplomat between 2011 and 2018.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Moderna’s CEO, Stephane Bancel, has been one of the leaders combating the COVID-19 crisis. While Bancel’s company has drawn headlines for the development of their COVID vaccine, few know though that Bancel was once an international student. 

 

And Bancel is not alone, immigrants who were once international students have been the backbone in our fight against COVID-19. America is the leading force behind the COVID-19 vaccine because it is the leading destination of international students in the world. 

 

As a former consular officer who adjudicated student visas though, I witnessed firsthand how the Trump administration intentionally blocked and discouraged these applicants. In order to revitalize this lifeblood of our economy, the Biden administration will need to invest in a wholesale student visa policy to bring them back.   

 

In my time at the State Department, I interviewed thousands of international students seeking to study at some of the best universities in the United States. They were some of the smartest, most successful students abroad, and many were from countries, such as Nigeria, that were labelled “shitholes” by former President Trump. 

 

That derogatory comment — rooted in the racism that permeated in the Trump Administration — animated all of Trump’s student visa policies. The Muslim Ban, proposed student visa restrictions, H1B restrictions, limits on postgraduate work opportunities, the and the increase in visa denials and processing times are part of the more than 400 immigration changes that Trump has unleashed that saw four straight years of decline in student visa applicants. All the while our competitors for talent, influence, and investment – Canada and Australia – saw their numbers increase.

Good visa policy is common sense

Visa policy is foreign policy. It is one of the quivers in America’s arrows of soft power diplomacy that offers a level of access and knowledge that few of our competitors can match. 

In 2019 alone, international students contributed $44 billion to the US economy and supported over 450,000 jobs. Of America’s billion-dollar startups, 55% were founded by immigrants who studied here first. Trump’s policies and the COVID-19 pandemic have certainly discouraged foreign students but America’s student visa system was in serious trouble even before both. Decades of inattention of our student visa policy by previous administrations created an environment that is unwelcoming to visa applicants.

To even schedule an appointment requires a visa applicant to work through three to five different websites. Applicants must often trek hours or even days across their country to a US Embassy or US Consulate for an in-person interview. After being searched and fingerprinted in a heavily armed atmosphere, applicants interview with visa officers such as myself behind a bulletproof glass window for only a few minutes. 

There is often no privacy as applicants answer personal questions about their plans, income, criminal history, and family ties to their native country. Often, cases are placed in Administrative processing in which an application can be pending for years without explanation.

The process was not much better for us on the other side of the window either. Officers, in general, are drawn from the US diplomatic corps. When they joined the Foreign Service, most had dreams of being George Kennan, but instead they end up on the “line,” where they are expected to interview as many as 120 visa applicants per day.  Officers have little time to analyze applicants beyond anything but gut instinct and that gut often leads them to deny credible applicants.

This antiquated system is rooted in our post 9/11 security build-up, a 1960s immigration policy that relies on gut judgments from predominantly white visa officers, and sadly the arrogance of those in government who believe that America is so appealing that we can treat visa applicants any way we wish without repercussions.

With COVID-19 hampering international travel for much of 2021, the Biden Administration can use this time to lay the groundwork for a better student visa policy at all levels of government.

The State Department should focus on improving the pre-interview appointment process to be equal or better to the application process of any of our competitor nations. 

Second, we should seek ways to permit student visa applicants to renew their visas while in the United States, so they don’t have to return home in the middle of their studies Third, we should create an empowered Ombudsman office to elevate systemic and individual visa issues when merited.

The State Department should also commit to cutting back red tape that creates unnecessary administrative processing backlogs and being more transparent to applicants as to why they were placed in administrative processing in the first place. No applicant should have to put their life on hold for a year while waiting for an answer due to administrative processing. Finally, the Biden administration should work with Congress to secure more funding for the State Department so that they can expand visa interview waivers, invest in remote visa interviewing technology, and provide better training opportunities for officers.

Team Biden can demonstrate to the world that he is not only undoing what Trump did, but he is also acknowledging where we fell short previously and ensuring that America remains – in the hearts and imaginations of the world – an inclusive, diverse nation of various opportunities for everyone.

Chris Richardson, an immigration lawyer, was a US diplomat between 2011 and 2018.

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