A Biden Presidency and What It Means for International Students

On the eve of the elections, I was seated on a couch in my friends’ townhouse, watching anxiously at the projected election results as polls began closing in Florida, Vermont, and Texas. Rwandan food was cooking over the stove and discussions on the future for international students like myself took place over the counter. After four tumultuous years of travel bans, a proposal to limit visa terms for international students, and a deep suspicion towards Chinese international students, to name a few, the results of the election would decide whether the hostility was to continue, or a reset was near.

As a result of the damaging rhetoric that has been used against international students for so long, an analysis from the NAFSA Association of International Educations found that, from 2001 to 2020, the US share of the 5.3 million international students worldwide dropped from 28 percent to 21 percent. The lack of coordinated national COVID-19 pandemic response has caused numbers to dip even lower. In an analysis by the Institute of International Education, new enrollments dropped by 43% from Fall 2020 to June of 2020. In June 2020, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) declaration stated that F-1 student visa holders and incoming students would not be allowed to legally stay in the United States should their colleges choose not to offer in-person learning, only to rescind it weeks after in response to the Harvard-MIT lawsuit. As an international student, and especially as one amidst a pandemic, stability was the one thing I was looking for and the back-and-forth declaration and rescindment of policies wrecked me with fear over securing my future in the US or elsewhere. At the time, Biden’s tweet on this issue stressing the “unrelenting optimism and determination” of students studying in the US brought some  hope for change.

With 71.1 percent of international students preferring Biden over Trump in the 2020 elections, it comes without a shock that relief was a dominant feeling amongst international students since Biden’s election win. However, what exactly does this mean for international students? During his campaign, President Biden mentioned the importance of highly skilled foreign workers as important drivers of US innovation and proposed that foreign graduates of US doctoral programs should be given permanent resident status, upon completion of their program, among others. As of March 2021, he has introduced a pro-immigration bill in the United States Congress, that aims to relax norms related to green card and H-1B visas which will allow American companies to employ foreign workers in occupations that require theoretical and technical expertise and repealed the travel ban instituted by the Trump administration in 2017 to prevent immigration from several Muslim-majority countries.

However, Biden’s presidential powers can only extend so much without the support of Congress members. Many across the aisle have already expressed their doubts on the long-anticipated US Citizenship Act of 2021 which at its center would allow an eight-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants arriving in the US before January 1, 2021. This bill also includes provisions such as the expansion of available visas and green cards, and the removal of barriers to family-based immigration, including lengthy visa backlogs and employment-based green cards, both of which have been inaccessible for foreign workers working lower-wage jobs.

Biden’s statements and initial actions in office have been overall supportive of foreign students in the U.S receiving a higher education,and welcoming towards graduates. However, there is a lot of work ahead for the Biden administration and one can only wait and anticipate how this all unfolds. I am hopeful that American higher education will be able to prove itself a welcoming and favorable environment for international students in the times to come. 

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MIAN Editorial Board

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