Changes imperil foreign scholars

Jennifer Niemela

New regulations could summarily force international students and faculty members to leave the country if they allow their visas to expire.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, passed by Congress in September, was intended to prevent nonresidents from staying beyond their visa expiration dates. The Immigration and Nationalization Service expects to finish writing the regulations required to enforce the law by the end of spring quarter.
Before the new law created a single set of federal standards, regional immigration offices made decisions about people with expired visas on a case-by-case basis. Although the University office expects the immigration service to continue to operate with some leniency, it says the punishment for overstaying expired visas is likely to be more severe because of this legislation.
The University’s International Student and Scholar Services, which prepares documents for students and researchers on non-immigrant visas, is in the process of educating the international community at the University about the changes.
“Once regulations are put into effect, we make a concerted effort to notify international students and staff,” said Teresa Harrell, assistant director of the International Student Office. “Students and scholars are welcome to come into our office and talk to us and ask questions.”
The law mostly affects nonresidents who have F-1 and J-1 visas. F-1 visas are issued to non-immigrants who are self-supporting and are enrolled in a degree program; this visa applies to most international students. J-1 visas are issued to faculty members and some students who are sponsored by a government agency. This includes most faculty and research scholars.
Most of the law hasn’t been interpreted yet; the International Student Office expects the regulations to be released in June or July. But the International Programs Office wants to get the word out that international students and scholars should be aware of impending changes.
“At this point, we want to be really cautious,” said International Programs Communications Coordinator Gayla Marty. “ISSS staff are reading the text of the law just like everybody else, but we won’t know how it’s going to be interpreted until the regulations are written and released by the INS.”
One stipulation that has already gone into effect says that F-1 or J-1 students who graduate or interrupt their program study and don’t maintain their legal status, become designated as overstayers, just like students who let their visas expire. The regulations allow nonresidents a grace period of 60 days for F-1 and 30 days for J-1.
Students and faculty members who overstay their visas face cancellation of their U.S. Entry Visa Stamp; there is no guarantee that the INS will issue a new entry stamp to overstayers, even if the visa was allowed to expire accidentally. People listed as overstayers, who are denied the stamp, face voluntary departure, which requires them to leave the United States within 30 days.
Marty said the new system could wreak havoc on the academic career of an international student.
However, international student and programs staff members say these changes are nothing to panic about because the University has resources to help international students and scholars keep their paperwork up to date.
“We do this all the time, not only when changes occur,” Harrell said.