International students at BYU find new hope with Biden’s immigrant-friendly policies

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International students that were adversely affected by the pandemic and some decisions made by the Trump administration have found new hope of completing their education in the U.S. with President Joe Biden and his immigration-friendly policies.

After President Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House, policies and laws he supported affecting international students were a constant threat.

A March 2020 study by the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors, quoted earlier this year in the Daily Universe, reported that “university and industry leaders acknowledge that anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies contribute to a chilling effect on international study in the United States” and that “international students and scholars feel less safe and less welcome in the United States than the previous year surveyed.”

Nonetheless, on his first day in office, Biden signed the U.S. Citizenship Act, which provides more resources to promote integration and assistance to individuals seeking to become citizens.

When Trump was elected, a lot of immigration programs were in danger, such as the administrative program protecting young people brought to the United States unlawfully as children the Optional Practical Training — temporary employment directly related to an F-1 student visa in the student’s major area of study.

The pandemic also affected international students in many ways, such as not being able to complete the required paperwork to maintain their legal status, or apply to BYU.

Samuel Mera, a Mexican sophomore in the computer science program, came back from his mission in April 2020. He expected to be back at BYU that September, but because of the pandemic, Mexico closed its embassy. It took Mera 6 and a half months and two flights from Mexico City to the U.S. Embassy in Tijuana to complete the process. 

Because he was not able to schedule an appointment at the Mexico City Embassy, he had to travel to Tijuana, a three-hour flight from his home.

“You necessarily need to go to do the process of fingerprints and photos. They may or may not call you for an interview with the consul. I previously had a student visa. I thought I did not need a second interview,” Mera said. “But when I arrived back home, a week later they called me to go to the consular interview.”

But Mera was able to obtain his student visa and is attending BYU this semester. 

Samuel Mera studies on campus. Mera is one of many international students that has had their education affected by COVID-19 and changing U.S. policies. (Diego Calderon)

For Mera, the U.S. Citizenship Act provides new opportunities since it improves the immigration border technology and helps students have more opportunities to obtain citizenship.

“This new bill shows the commitment that people with student visas in the U.S. can speed up the process to obtain a work visa after school so we can have more opportunities,” Mera said.

In May 2020, the Trump administration attempted to eliminate the OPT program, which helps international students obtain experience in their study fields after they have completed their degree. 

Several organizations all across the U.S. requested that the OPT program remain intact so both businesses and international students can benefit from this employment opportunity.

Because of the petition from these businesses and other universities that appealed, the OPT program was not shut down.

Elena Molina, a senior from Honduras studying medical laboratory science, was planning to obtain experience at her internship, but her opportunity was reduced from six months in a lab to four months in a lab and one month in online classes.

Molina’s clinical rotations were supposed to last six months, because of the pandemic it got reduced and she is losing experience. Still, Molina is looking at the bright side of this experience.

“My major was all about labs, then when we moved online it was weird. I felt like the labs were fake,” Molina said. “On the bright side, I can finish my career early so I can obtain a job that pays well.”

On July 6, 2020, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement was prepared to deport all international students who were not able to take in-person classes on campus. ICE and the Department of Homeland Security lost a federal court case against the universities that supported international students’ right to retain their access to a university education.

Gerardo Villar, an immigration paralegal at Weber Law, said many students were close to losing their status. Even before July 6, many students were not able to request files such as the F-1 student visa and the I-20, a file that keeps students with legal status in the U.S.

“Some students were not able to go back to their country, therefore they were not able to renew their student visa,” Villar said. “Some international students were not able to renew their I-20, so the best option was to send them back to their country. But in some cases that was not possible, so I had to help them get reinstated.”

The reinstatement is a required process when an international student loses his or her status as a student because of expired paperwork filed with the U.S. government. This procedure usually takes an average of eight months, according to Villar. 

“Some students without their paperwork are in the limbo,” Villar said.

Currently, some international students are not able to return to the U.S. Embassy in their home country because some embassies are still closed, are only assisting with humanitarian or medical affairs, or are very busy.

Elkin Romero, a civil engineering graduate student from Bolivia, said he was not able to go back home since the beginning of the pandemic. His student visa expired last September, and he is expecting to go to Bolivia soon.

“Luckily a student can maintain his legal status with his I-20. But since the Trump administration, getting a visa has become harder,” Romero said. “When I got my first student visa in 2012, I only had one interview at the embassy. Now, when I renewed my visa in 2017, I had two interviews at the embassy.”

Elkin Romero, a civil engineering graduate student from Bolivia, is preparing his thesis defense at his home. (Diego Calderon)

On top of the legal and academic challenges, international students like Maria Flores, a physiology and developmental biology student from Costa Rica, have struggled to find jobs and more available hours to work on campus.

“Before my mission, finding a job was very easy. But since I got back, it has become harder,” Flores said. “I have a new job, they pay very little and I have a few hours. Around 12 hours per week.”

Maria Flores (right), a student from Costa Rica, studies in the Harold B. Lee Library. She has struggled to find an on-campus job with enough hours to meet her financial needs. (Diego Calderon)

“The bill will make more ways for STEM degree students to work after graduation,” Flores said. “I didn’t like the idea of studying as much as possible so at the end of your career you apply for an OPT, but then the government tells you that you cannot. I know this bill will open new doors for us.”

According to Villar, international students can only work on-campus legally. The risk of hours being reduced and the high demand placed on few jobs have added stress for some students with financial needs.

“Because of the pandemic effects, some international students had to find jobs outside campus. But when working outside campus, they are in danger to lose their visa,” Villar said. “Some of them cannot go back to their country, otherwise they would not be able to come back.”

The U.S. Citizenship Act proposed by Biden will tackle many of the issues international students face, such as eliminating unnecessary hurdles to obtain an employment-based green card.

“Biden understands that people have civil rights, and he knows that people that come from outside the U.S. have civil rights as well,” Flores said.


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