The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Thursday proposed a new rule that would place fixed time limits on student visas, breaking with current policy that allows visa holders to stay as long as they maintain their status as students.
Currently, international students are granted a “duration of status” (D/S), meaning that the length of their authorized stay within the United States is not dictated by their visa expiration date. Under the D/S framework, which has been in place for 20 years, foreign nationals can stay indefinitely, so long as they remain enrolled in school and follow the rules associated with their student visa.
The proposed DHS rule, which is now open for public comment for 30 days, would replace the duration of status with a maximum four-year period of authorized stay for international students. The fixed four-year term is notably shorter than the typical time needed to complete a typical PhD program, which can takes six years or longer, meaning that a PhD student would have to apply for an extension of stay mid-program.
If the new rule takes effect as written, foreign students would only be eligible for two-year visas if they are born in or citizens of countries with a student visa overstay rate greater than 10 percent. According to the latest DHS Overstay Report (pdf), about 60 Asian, Middle Eastern, and African countries fall into that category. Countries with the largest number of student visa overstays, such as China, Brazil, and India, would not be affected by the proposed rule.
The two-year visa limit also applies to citizens and people born in countries on the U.S Department of State’s State Sponsor of Terrorism List, namely Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria.
In addition, the proposed rule would limit the time students can spend in English language training to no more than two years over a lifetime and impose limits on the number of times they can change programs at the same degree level or move to a lower degree level. It would also shorten the 60-day grace period during which students may remain in United States beyond the completion of their program of study to 30 days.
The changes are necessary, according to the DHS, because the current D/S policy allows foreign nationals to stay on a student visa, but doesn’t require them to be periodically assessed by immigration officials on whether they are complying with the rules relevant to their student status or whether they present a national security concern.
“An open education environment in the United States offers enormous benefits, but it also places research universities and the nation at risk for economic, academic, or military espionage by foreign students,” the DHS says in its proposal, adding that the new policy would help mitigate those national security risks by ensuring an immigration officer directly and periodically vets applicants for extensions of stay and, in so doing, confirms they are engaged only in activities consistent with their student status.