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President Biden on his first day in office Wednesday proposed an immigration bill that features a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and makes Dreamers -- young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children -- immediately eligible for green cards.
He also signed a memorandum directing the Secretary of Homeland Security to take actions aimed at "preserving and fortifying" the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. A separate executive order repealed a controversial travel ban policy established by former president Trump that barred nationals from a group of mostly Muslim-majority and African countries from entering the United States.
Higher education groups praised the reversal of the ban, which initially caused chaos in higher education as students and scholars affiliated with American institutions found themselves stranded abroad. In the nearly four years since the travel ban was put in place, one week after Trump's inauguration, many higher ed officials have argued the policy sent an unwelcoming message to students and scholars around the globe.
Higher education groups also welcomed Biden’s renewed commitment to protecting the DACA program, which provides protection against deportation and work authorization to certain Dreamers, a group that includes many current college students and young alumni. The Trump administration repeatedly tried to end DACA but was ultimately blocked in the Supreme Court.
“We applaud President Biden for acting swiftly to protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and propose legislation making the program permanent and Dreamers eligible for citizenship,” Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, said in a statement.
"We are gratified that the Biden administration is also acting to correct a number of misguided immigration and visa policies, many of which affected international students and fed a perception that the United States no longer welcomes students from across the globe," Mitchell said. "Rescinding the so-called 'Muslim travel ban' is one example, and we look forward to the new administration taking additional steps to safeguard our country’s status as the destination of choice for the most talented international students and scholars."
Observers of international education breathed a sigh of relief after Biden’s victory in the presidential election and assumed he would reset Trump-era policies widely viewed in the sector as being unwelcoming to immigrants and international students and scholars. Many people believe Trump's policies and rhetoric have been a contributing factor in declines in new international students coming to the U.S. that began in the 2016-17 academic year.
Notably, the Trump administration did not finalize a proposed rule prior to the end of Trump’s term that would have fundamentally changed how student visas are awarded, requiring students to reapply every two or four years. Colleges had widely opposed the proposed rule, which was introduced in September.
"On the one hand, you can say they ran out of time," said Miriam Feldblum, the executive director of the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, an association of college leaders focused on immigration policy. "You can also say we had a good victory there. Colleges and universities were part of the reason why there were 30,000-plus comments" on the proposed rule after it was published in the Federal Register. "We made clear that this was a line that we did not want them to cross."
Feldblum noted other victories for higher education during the Trump administration. She cited the preservation of optional practical training, a program that enables international students to stay and work in the U.S. after graduating and that was widely seen as under threat during Trump's presidency. She also cited various victories colleges had in court blocking Trump administration policies, including a policy that would have made it easier for international students to accrue unlawful presence in the U.S. -- an outcome that could result in future three- or 10-year bans on re-entry to this country -- and one that would have restricted the ability of international students to continue studying online during the ongoing pandemic.
"The other big win was DACA," said Feldblum, who noted the roles that Princeton University and the University of California played in suing the government over the Trump administration's attempted rescission of the policy. "We were just part of the collective effort, but there’s no doubt that higher education played a significant role."
“We do think this is a new day,” Feldblum added. “We’re eager to get started on both rolling back the harms of the past four years and applaud the [Biden] administration for the actions they’re already taking and call upon all of higher education to now take a step in and engage in the legislative possibilities.”
A White House spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said at White House press conference that Biden sent his proposed immigration bill, the U.S. Citizenship Act, to Congress Wednesday. According to a fact sheet released Wednesday morning, it includes provisions related to undocumented immigrants and legalization, family-based and employment-based immigration, border security, immigration courts, and asylum seekers.
The bill -- which could well have a difficult path in Congress, even with the Democrats' majorities in the House of Representatives and, ever so slightly, in the Senate -- includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals, enabling undocumented students to apply for temporary legal status with the promise of being able to apply for permanent resident status after five years, pending background security checks and payment of their taxes. Dreamers would be eligible to apply for permanent residency immediately, as would farmworkers and immigrants holding temporary protected status (TPS) due to dangerous conditions in their home countries.
The bill also "makes it easier for graduates of U.S. universities with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the United States," according to the fact sheet. It also would provide work authorization to dependents of nonimmigrants who have H-1B skilled worker visas -- a group that would include college students -- and prevent them from aging out of their visa status at age 21.
Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, the Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar and a clinical professor of law at Pennsylvania State University and director of its Center for Immigrants' Rights, described the proposals for legalization as "a game-changer for anyone in higher ed that has prospects or dreams to be in the United States permanently."
"I'm thinking in particular of someone who's undocumented and on a college campus or someone with DACA or TPS who’s going to school or working at a university pursuant to work authorization," Wadhia said. "They are either in a tenuous or a temporary status today. You also have kids in higher ed who might have been born in the United States but who are living in a mixed-status family where Dad has TPS or Mom is undocumented. I think about, 'Wow, now this person can go to Chem 101 class and focus on chemistry without having to worry about the vulnerability that their parent has to immigration enforcement.'"
Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, the chancellor of the City University of New York, which spans 26 campuses, praised Biden’s proposal to provide a path to U.S. citizenship to undocumented immigrants.
"We hope that the Congress will now undertake the work needed to codify the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 into law," he said in a written statement. "As a University with a long and proud history of welcoming immigrants, we are especially encouraged by the administration's plan to provide an expedited path to permanent residence for students who are recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or those who have Temporary Protected Status."