Are student visa challenges deterring international students?

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See also “Life after the student visa: work visa challenges and benefits”

Bruno Monteiro never expected to go to school in the U.S. In fact, it was only when things didn’t work out as he expected with his MBA in his home country of Brazil that he began to look into programs in the U.S., specifically at BYU.

He soon found out about the Cardon International Scholarship, available to international students who want to attend BYU’s Marriott School of Business. After the initial process and difficulties of researching, applying, getting accepted and speaking a non-native language over the phone, BYU gave Monteiro approval to begin the visa process. He was soon granted a J-1 visa. Monteiro was elated but soon realized the host of challenges that came with being an immigrant in the U.S.

Monteiro is one of the thousands of international students who come to the U.S. each year to pursue higher education. According to an article published in the Journal of Economic Inquiry, 3% of all bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. were awarded to international students in 2012, as well as 12% of master’s degrees. Within STEM fields, international students earned around 40% of all graduate diplomas.

Although the report showed robust numbers of international students in the U.S., a 2017 study by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and other institutions reported 39% of responding higher education institutions reported a decline from the previous year in international applicants. This decline could be because of the challenges international students face in the U.S.

According to Monteiro and other international students from Italy, Peru, Canada, France, South Korea and Mexico, international students face unique challenges.

Fewer job opportunities

As the majority of international undergraduate students study on an F-1 visa, which regulates the type of employment available to them, their job opportunities are limited.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, “F-1 students may not work off-campus during the first academic year (they are enrolled in school), but may accept on-campus employment subject to certain conditions and restrictions.”

These restrictions include work hours limited to 20 hours per week during the semester and only working off-campus if the following types of employment apply. These types of employment include curricular practical training, optional practical training — which can be completed before or after the student has finished university — and STEM optional practical training extension. Because of these restrictions, most international students are limited to on-campus, part-time jobs.

Sam Brown, the director of BYU’s International Student and Scholar Services Office, explained this well when he said, “a major challenge for our students is having to know and comply with all of the visa regulations under the Code of Federal Regulations.”

These regulations extend to working, and students can face serious consequences if the regulations are not followed, the most serious of which may be having to apply for reinstatement of lawful F-1 visa status, according to nolo.com.

According to Rodrigo Jose Sanchez Raygoza, a student originally from Mexico City studying computer science at BYU-Idaho, the limited work hours and job regulations are a huge challenge for international students.

“You have limited work hours. During the class semesters, you can only work 20 per week,” Raygoza said. “If you are married and need to support your family, (it can) be really hard.” 

LDS Business College international student Leo Monteiro shared his story in the audio clip below. He described applying for a student visa and how facing limited job opportunities has been a struggle for him.

Higher cost of tuition

According to Mathilde Pinault, an international student from France studying interior design at Mesa Community College, international students have a higher cost of tuition that can be difficult to manage.

“We pay substantially more than American students. I pay an average of $1,000 a class. Going to university (instead of community college) would cost around $35,000 a year,” Pinault said.

Her student visa is valid for five years, and thus far she has only used two and a half years of it. But because of the cost of schooling, after Pinault graduates from Mesa Community College, she can’t afford to go back to school to get a bachelor’s degree.

According to the College Board, the average in-state tuition at a public four-year university was $10,230 for the 2018-2019 school year and the average out of state tuition was $26,290.

Difficulty leaving the country

Pinault also mentioned the difficulty of leaving the U.S. to go on vacation.

“I have a visa printed in my passport, but I also have something called an I-20, which is a stack of three papers which state my major … and a whole lot of other information. The second page has spaces for my advisor to sign whenever I want to leave the United States for a holiday,” Pinault said. “To get this signature, I have to be enrolled in classes for the next semester and to have paid for the next semester or have set up a payment plan. This signature is valid for six months.”

Driver’s license and working with banks

Some of Monteiro’s biggest issues with studying in the U.S. were the difficulties of obtaining a driver’s license and working with banks.

According to Monteiro, an international student driver’s license expires quickly.

“Your driver’s license expires really soon, sooner than regular citizens, which means that every year you need to spend money and time to renew it,” Monteiro said.

Monteiro also said working with banks was difficult.

“(At first) I couldn’t get a simple credit card or finance a car. It took me a couple tries with different entities to get that,” Monteiro said.

Attitude toward immigrants

Many of the international students said there have been times they do not feel welcome in the U.S.

According to Raygoza, if you don’t speak English very well or have an accent, you may suffer a form of racism. Although Raygoza said he has not personally experienced it, people he knows have.

“Some of my friends have been told to ‘go back to Mexico,’ or to ‘speak American,’” Raygoza said. “I guess that is normal due to the many things going on with the government.”

Monteiro also shared a similar experience, saying when he moved to New Zealand after graduation he felt more welcome than he did in the U.S.

“A simple example is when a local citizen asks where are you from and what you are doing in the country … Most of the time, the follow up questions I got from Americans were, ‘And when are you going back to Brazil?’ Here in New Zealand, they will ask, ‘Are you liking the country? You should stay more, or move permanently here,'” Monteiro said. “So I think it has to do with the culture itself. To be fair, that’s not every individual, just the overall feeling.”

Kim Buhler-Thomas, an immigration lawyer who has been working with immigration law since 1995, said even legal immigrants in the U.S. have major challenges because of the current political climate.

“It’s a frustrating time for legal immigrants. The current administration has created real and invisible walls in an effort to prevent or discourage immigrants from legally living and working in the U.S.,” Buhler-Thomas said.

Has there been a decline in student visas granted to international students?

Data from the Winter 2017 census of BYU’s International Students and Scholars. (Auburn Wilcox)

It is no secret that applying for a visa involves a host of paperwork, money, time and effort. As a result, it can be even more heartbreaking when a potential student isn’t awarded a visa.

According to Raygoza, students from “specific countries attacked by the new immigration policies are finding it harder to get a student visa.” However, Raygoza was the first to admit that once you have been accepted by a school, getting a student visa is not too complicated, as you are then backed by a credible organization.

However, during Brown’s time at the BYU International Student and Scholar Services Office, he has seen “students who are denied the visa after getting accepted to school.”

According to ICEF, statistics from the U.S. State Department showed a 17% decline in 2017 with regards to the number of F-1 visas issued to international students.

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