Obama’s Immigration Shift

President expands his temporary protected status for "Dreamers" and seeks to expand temporary work authorization program for international graduates of American universities. 

November 21, 2014

WASHINGTON -- President Obama formally announced Thursday evening a series of controversial executive actions he plans to take to reform a “broken” immigration system -- policies that have implications for undocumented college students as well as international students who study at American universities.

The most sweeping part of Obama’s plan is to grant millions of immigrants who entered the country illegally a temporary reprieve from deportation. He plans to expand eligibility for the “deferred action” program he first created in 2012 that shields from deportation certain young immigrants, many students, who were brought to the United States as children without authorization to live in the U.S. The expansion will involve, among other things, making deportation protections last for three years as opposed to the current two-year period and allowing more young immigrants to qualify for the status.

While those students granted a temporary protected status may attend American higher education free of the fear of deportation, they still face a number of challenges. Undocumented students are not eligible for federal student aid, for instance, and they must contend with a patchwork of rules across different state policies over receiving in-state tuition.

Obama’s most significant actions affecting higher education directly, though, relate to international students.

In explaining his much-anticipated executive actions during an evening address from the White House, Obama invoked higher education to make the case for what he views as a more pragmatic immigration policy that aligns with the country’s values.

“Are we a nation that educates the world’s best and brightest in our universities, only to send them home to create businesses in countries that compete against us?” he asked. “Or are we a nation that encourages them to stay and create jobs, businesses, and industries right here in America?”

The administration announced several actions that have direct or indirect implications for international students seeking to stay in the U.S.

Citing the need to strengthen and extend job training for international graduates of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs at U.S. universities, the White House announced that the Department of Homeland Security would propose changes to “expand and extend the use” of the Optional Practical Training program, which provides temporary work authorization to international students for 12 to 29 months post-graduation.  The White House also said that it would “require stronger ties” between students participating in OPT and the colleges and universities from which they graduated. No further details on this were available on Thursday night.

The president’s plan does not call for increasing the cap on the number of H-1B visas, which provide a path to permanent residency for international students seeking to remain in the United States and for which there are currently 85,000 slots per year (about a third of which go to former international students, according to a recent Brookings Institution analysis). The administration is, however, finalizing regulations first proposed in May that would allow spouses of certain H-1B visa holders to work, and on Thursday it announced plans to ease some employment and travel-related restrictions for individuals waiting to obtain lawful permanent resident status.

Victor C. Johnson, the senior adviser for public policy for NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said the deferred action and OPT expansions, combined with the proposed changes for those in line for a green card – which would include many former international students – are the biggest take-aways from a student and scholar perspective. But he didn’t want to lose sight of the bigger picture. NAFSA continues to advocate for Congress to take up a comprehensive immigration bill.

“We have been strong supporters of comprehensive immigration reform from the beginning,” Johnson said. “We believe that yes, it will provide a more hospitable environment to students that want to come here to study. It’ll provide a more hospitable environment to international students who graduate from our schools and wish to stay here and work for some period of time. But it also is really about, as the president said tonight, who we are as a country and who we are as a people, and that in itself makes a difference in who wants to come here to work and study.”

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