More than a million international students are in this country, roughly a third of them Chinese; a recent study showed they contribute more than $39 billion to the economy. National security concerns, including worries about industrial and other forms of espionage, are legitimate grounds on which to scrutinize their applications to study here. But reports from campuses suggest that recent administrative impediments often seem random and unjustified.
In February, the government extended the time it takes to process applications assigned for extended security checks to six months; previously, it took two months. As the New York Times reported, that shift, and what appears to be a spike in the numbers designated for such additional processing, can confound students admitted to college in the spring and hoping to enroll in the fall. Should a student make a down payment? Book and pay for flights? Rent an apartment? The uncertainty and attenuated wait times have discouraged many, and it has likely dampened the enthusiasm of others who were planning to apply.
The slowdown in visa processing for some applicants follows a sharp hike in visa-processing fees. The administration has also pursued a crackdown on students who overstay or violate the terms of their visas — even though some do so inadvertently — with draconian penalties, including long-term bans on returning to the United States. A federal court has blocked implementation of that policy, but the message it transmits dovetails with other administration measures intended to discourage international students from coming.
In late August, a Palestinian student about to take his place as a freshman at Harvard said he was turned away at the Boston airport by a Customs and Border Protection agent who, upon examining his phone, disliked the social media postings of some of the young man’s friends. If officials using that criterion were empowered to bar U.S. students from matriculating, it’s conceivable that every college classroom in the country would be empty. (The student was subsequently allowed to enter the country.)
Turning a cold shoulder to ambitious young people around the world is a self-defeating strategy on multiple fronts. It robs U.S.-born students at college and university campuses of valuable perspectives and opportunities to widen their aperture on the world. It undermines the United States’ standing as a global beacon that can impart democratic values to students who might champion them when they return home. And it diminishes America’s standing and leadership by transmitting a message of hostility to the very people who had regarded us with hope.