Policy retreat: On U.S. student visas

Trump must deliver on jobs, not engage in rhetoric on visas, to stay in office

Updated - July 20, 2020 12:32 am IST

Published - July 20, 2020 12:02 am IST

Market forces and common sense appeared to triumph over narrow-minded economic protectionism in the U.S. on student visas. President Trump’s administration had to walk back a recent immigration policy diktat , that it would no longer issue visas to university students in programmes involving a substantial online component , starting in the fall 2020 semester. Had this policy withstood the legal challenge that was immediately mounted by Harvard University, the MIT, and over 200 other universities, it might have led to large numbers of students enrolled in such courses facing the risk of deportation and those intending to enter the U.S. for higher studies stranded abroad without options. The universities joining the case against the decision of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement argued in court that this policy, described as “cruel” and “illegal”, undermined their efforts to create a safe, online-based learning system amidst the raging pandemic. However, their fight may be far from over. Both the universities and their prospective international enrollees would be wise to remain alert to the possibility of additional restrictions foisted onto the entry process at a future date. Already the administration has clarified that newly enrolling international students, possibly up to 200,000 across the U.S., will be barred from taking purely online courses while living in the country. Yet the battle will continue from the other side too — the judge in the legal case brought by the universities is keeping the case open, implying that arguments could be made against additional restrictions.

For Mr. Trump, his administration’s immigration sagas will only ratchet up the pressure on him to perform and deliver during what he probably considers the hardest year, politically, of his first term. On the one hand, he is facing a sharp legal backlash in the realm of immigration policy, not only in the case of students taking online courses but also on his ban on the issuance of H-1B visas for skilled workers and several other worker visas. Second, his job approval ratings are on the decline in the face of his government’s mismanagement of policy to contain the spread of COVID-19, the ineffective steps it has taken to bolster the economy, and a surge in racial tensions. Third, his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, is trying to capitalise on Mr. Trump’s failings and find a path to victory in November’s presidential election. Despite the embarrassment of retreating on his latest visa policy, Mr. Trump is unlikely to back down from his broader protectionist impulse for fear of alienating the core of his base — those whose jobs he claims to protect from foreigners and immigrants. However, he will have to proactively address the precarious state of the U.S. macroeconomy through fiscal measures, while also providing succour to tens of millions of workers who have lost their livelihoods through this crisis.

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