(Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

A dozen higher-education organizations expressed serious concerns over a possible change in the student visa program, saying it could deter the most talented international students from applying to schools in the United States.

This month, The Washington Post reported that senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security were discussing a proposal to require foreign students to reapply for permission to stay in the United States every year. The proposal, intended to strengthen national security by monitoring students more closely in line with President Trump’s repeated calls to tighten the country’s borders, would require regulatory changes that could take a year and a half or more, and might require agreement from the State Department, as well.

But the idea alarmed leaders of organizations such as the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the American Council on Education and the Association of American Universities:

International students and exchange visitors are the most closely tracked travelers in the United States. Institutions and organizations sponsoring international students and exchange visitors are not only required to manage these programs through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) database, but also must adhere to reporting requirements that mandate the notification of arrivals, departures, and program changes within set time frames.

… Though international students make up only five percent of postsecondary students in
the country, they contributed $32 billion to the U.S. economy and supported more than 400,000
jobs just in the last academic year alone. Our nation greatly risks its ability to remain their top
destination of choice if it imposes undue barriers to entry.

David Lapan, a spokesman for the DHS, said that as a matter of policy, the department doesn’t comment on correspondence with the secretary, but would respond to the letter writers as appropriate.

“DHS is exploring a variety of measures that would ensure that our immigration programs — including programs for international students studying in the United States — operate in a manner that promotes the national interest, enhances national security and public safety, and ensures the integrity of our immigration system,” Lapan wrote in an email response to The Washington Post.

“We are widely regarded as the world’s outstanding higher education system,” said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, “but there are real options. There is, in fact, a competition in the world for the extraordinary intellectual capital that countries need and want.” If students don’t know whether they can remain in the country for the duration of an academic program, he said, and face far more paperwork, fees, and uncertainty, they may well choose an alternative.

“We need these brilliant foreign students to come here and study,” he said. “Many make lasting and important contributions to our society. This would really shortchange our country.”

Letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly