Foreign students from China, Brazil, Iran and South Africa will be exempt from the remaining travel bans imposed during the coronavirus pandemic, opening up the possibility of a significant rebound in international-student enrollment at U.S. schools this fall.
The U.S. State Department said in an update online, dated Monday, that students and academics, as well as journalists and a few other categories of individuals from those countries, will be allowed into the U.S. with proper visas.
Last summer, the Trump administration made similar exceptions for students and others from the U.K., Ireland and Europe.
The carve-outs are made under what the State Department calls a “national interest exemption,” meaning the government has determined it’s in the U.S.’s best interest to allow these individuals in.
U.S. embassies and consulates have slowly resumed visa services across much of the world after suspending operations in March 2020. They say they are prioritizing family members of U.S. citizens, diplomats and those assisting with the pandemic response, followed by students, temporary workers and some other groups.
International enrollment at American colleges and universities plummeted last fall, as hundreds of thousands of students were stranded overseas, unable to secure new visas or unable to travel if they already had the proper documentation. Visa records show the number of students here on F-1 or M-1 visas, which include those at colleges, vocational programs and K-12 schools, fell by 18%, to 1.25 million, while visa records for newly enrolled students tumbled by 72%.
Chinese students account for roughly one-third of all international students enrolled at U.S. schools. Students from India, the second leading country of origin, are subject to standard Covid-19 testing protocols, but haven’t been restricted from travel to the U.S. during the pandemic. Brazil is the ninth largest, and Iran No. 13, according to the Institute of International Education, which supports global study and tracks international enrollments.
Uncertainty over visa issuance and travel allowances weighed heavily on schools this spring, as they tried to plan for the coming school year but couldn’t predict how many foreign students might be able to move into dorms and sit in actual classrooms, rather than take classes online, from home.
International students and academics on exchange visas will be able to come for classes only if their programs begin on or after Aug. 1, so summer school is still not an option for them.
Under current rules, any traveler coming to the U.S. from abroad must submit a negative Covid-19 test taken within 72 hours of arriving. The Biden administration has said it won’t develop any federally-mandated proof of vaccination, though many colleges and universities are requiring vaccines for students to attend next fall.
On Tuesday, the Biden administration also said it was restoring a policy scrapped by the Trump administration that will make processing visas and other immigration applications quicker. The policy, known as the prior deference memo, directs immigration officers to approve a visa or other renewal if the original application had been approved and other circumstances weren’t changed.
Under former President Donald Trump, renewals were evaluated as new applications, leading to significantly slower immigration processing and higher denial rates. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that runs the legal immigration system, is funded almost entirely through fees it collects on citizenship, green-card and visa applications. The agency ran out of money and had considered furloughing two-thirds of its staff last summer.
—Michelle Hackman contributed to this article.
Write to Melissa Korn at email@example.com
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Appeared in the April 28, 2021, print edition as ‘Foreign-Student Travel Ban Is Loosened.’