The Canadian government thinks international students should study at Canadian universities rather than in the United States. Unfortunately for U.S. universities, so does the Trump administration.
While Canada is making life easier for international students in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump officials are expected to take advantage of the current health crisis to impose new restrictions on those planning to study and work in America.
The Trump administration has signaled it will soon restrict, suspend or eliminate Optional Practical Training (OPT). One approach would be to publish an interim final rule, said William Stock of Klasko Immigration Law Partners in an interview. That is not the only option, notes Stock, but an interim final rule would allow the rule to take effect almost immediately. The regulation would change only if the agency believes public comments justified it.
Optional Practical Training allows international students to work in the U.S. for 12 months, usually after graduation, and 24 additional months in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Universities view OPT as a way for students to enhance their education in the United States by applying what they have learned in classes. It also provides a more realistic chance to gain one of the scarce H-1B visas by giving students more than one opportunity to secure a spot in the annual H-1B lottery of 85,000 petitions.
“Students will stop seeing the United States as a destination for education,” said Ravi Shankar, assistant vice provost and director of the international services office at the University of Rochester, who told Michelle Hackman and Melissa Korn of the Wall Street Journal he expects foreign student enrollment would decline if OPT opportunities are “curtailed.”
The Canadian government and Trump administration approach to international students could not be more different.
On May 14, 2020, the Canadian government announced significant flexibility for international students, including preserving their ability to work after graduation. “The Covid-19 pandemic has had a considerable impact on international students,” said Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in a statement. “In response to the health and travel restrictions that are in place, many designated learning institutions (DLIs) are offering their courses online. Post-secondary institutions and prospective students alike are considering their approach to the fall semester. Both have sought guidance from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada regarding eligibility for the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program (PGWPP) for students starting at an eligible DLI this fall.”
“Under normal circumstances, criteria for the PGWPP limit an international student’s ability to pursue a program via distance learning, from inside or outside Canada, and time spent studying outside Canada is deducted from the length of the work permit for which they are eligible,” continued the statement. “Post-Graduation Work Permit Program eligibility will not be affected for international students whose fall 2020 courses will be online due to COVID-19. This is in line with guidance provided to students already studying in Canada or whose program had a spring or summer start date.” (Emphasis added.)
Canadian immigration authorities made another accommodation: “Students in this situation may begin their classes while outside Canada and complete up to 50% of their program via distance learning if they cannot travel to Canada sooner. In addition, they will not have time deducted from the length of a future post-graduation work permit for studies completed outside of Canada, up to December 31, 2020.”
International students are allowed to enter Canada if they have “a valid study permit, or were approved for a study permit on or before March 18, 2020.” A student would still need to pass a health check by the airline before boarding a flight to Canada and “must have a plan to quarantine for 14 days when you arrive in Canada . . . even if you have no symptoms.”
The Canadian government has made clear it values international students. “International education represents a significant economic benefit to Canada, with international students contributing $21.6 billion to Canada’s GDP and supporting nearly 170,000 jobs in 2018,” said the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada statement. “International students are also often excellent candidates to apply to remain in Canada permanently, with nearly 54,000 former students becoming permanent residents in Canada in 2018.”
“The flexibility being shown by our government with respect to international students during this pandemic indicates their importance to our educational institutions and to our immigrant selection programs,” said Peter Rekai of the Toronto-based immigration law firm Rekai LLP in an interview.
“Young skilled people, fluent in English or French, with Canadian degrees, Canadian work experience and ongoing offers of employment, and having paid full tuition for their education, will be net contributors to Canada’s tax base for decades to come,” he said.
The Trump administration’s expected move to restrict the ability of international students to work after graduation has alarmed U.S. universities and employers. In a letter to the president and cabinet officials, 324 U.S. employers and trade, industry, and higher education associations and groups wrote, “As the number of U.S. postsecondary STEM degrees attained by F-1 nonimmigrants has steadily grown, the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, to include the STEM OPT extension, has correspondingly become a significant pipeline for the U.S. STEM workforce.” The businesses and organizations urged the Trump administration not to impose new restrictions on international students.
The letter cites a National Foundation for American Policy study by Madeline Zavodny, an economics professor at the University of North Florida, who examined nearly a decade of data on OPT and concluded, “The results indicate that the OPT program does not reduce job opportunities for American workers in STEM fields.”
“The relative number of foreign students approved for OPT is negatively related to various measures of the unemployment rate among U.S. STEM workers,” according to Zavodny. “A larger number of foreign students approved for OPT, relative to the number of U.S. workers, is associated with a lower unemployment rate among those U.S. workers.”
The administration’s justification for any new restrictions is likely to raise eyebrows, said analysts. Data show the unemployment rate for individuals in computer occupations declined from 3% in January 2020 to 2.8% in April 2020, according to an analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP). “The data raise questions about the Trump administration’s ability to use the unemployment rate for computer professionals to justify the new restrictions being considered for H-1B visa holders and international students working on Optional Practical Training,” notes the NFAP analysis.
Immigration rules make a difference, particularly ones that could prevent international students from making their careers in the United States. If Canada keeps the doors of its universities open for international students while the Trump administration shuts America’s doors, then many of the world’s most talented young people will learn to sing “O Canada” rather than “O say can you see.”