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Visa Delays at Backlogged Immigration Service Strand International Students

18 Jun

WASHINGTON — The visa applications of hundreds of international students seeking to work in the United States this summer are languishing at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, where increased processing times have left students stranded and university leaders struggling with the fallout.

Students have written petitions and panicked letters to leaders of some of the top universities in the country as their internship start dates have come and gone with no word from the federal government. 

Recent graduates of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism are pushing back start dates for internships and relying on their parents for day-to-day expenses. Students at Princeton have had job offers rescinded, and have been forced to return home for the summer. At Dartmouth  College, students reported losing money they spent for housing and flights to live and work in other states. At Yale, students scrambled to enroll in a newly created course that would allow the university to approve their summer employment. 

“Every morning I wake up with anxiety, wondering what am I going to do today when I’m supposed to be working,” said Yaling Jiang, 26, a student from China and recent graduate of Columbia’s journalism school, who was supposed to start an internship last Monday at a trade publication run by The Financial Times. 

Such a delay, college leaders suggest, reflects increasing hurdles international students have faced studying and working in the country under the Trump administration. Last year, the administration sought to crack down on students who overstayed their visas, a policy that is under a court injunction. And as trade tensions escalate with Washington, Beijing warned Chinese students this month of visa restrictions and delays in the United States. 

Ms. Jiang is among those awaiting work authorization under a program called Optional Practical Training, which allows international students legally attending school to work for up to a year in a field related to their studies. They can apply for the authorization only 90 days before they are scheduled to start a job or complete their degree. In prior years that was not a problem: The maximum wait time was 90 days, though university leaders said that it was rare that is exceeded 60. 

This year, Citizenship and Immigration Services is projecting a lag of up to five months, which an agency official said was a result of “a surge in employment authorization requests” that had created a “small backlog.” 

The agency said in a statement that it had “implemented a plan to address this and return to standard processing times soon.” 

Princeton’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, led a group of New Jersey college leaders who sent a letter to state lawmakers last month, citing the Citizenship and Immigration Services delay as one of several instances of a “disturbing increase in the number — and length — of impediments put in the path of our international students, faculty and staff.” The letter cited studies that found that the overall number of foreign students enrolling in American institutions had declined, and that over the last two fiscal years, processing times for foreign visas had increased 46 percent. 

“Some of our schools have experienced decreases in foreign student enrollment and all of our schools have encountered an increasingly log-jammed immigration system that is impacting our ability to recruit, retain and bring to our campuses foreign talent,” the presidents wrote. 

The backlog has made it nearly impossible for students who applied in February or March — the earliest they could do so — to begin summer jobs on time, if at all.

“When you start off as an intern, you want to be able to put your best foot forward,” said Jeevika Verma, 23, a recent Columbia graduate from India who submitted her application on March 4, but is still awaiting authorization to begin her internship at WNYC. “You want to start early and stay late, but I can’t start at all.” 

A spokesman at Columbia, Scott N. Schell, said the university was focused on preserving access to the practical training programs, and ensuring that students are “well informed about how to navigate this increasingly complex landscape.” 

University officials and students at several colleges say the delayed approvals have thrown some students into crisis. 

At Princeton, about two dozen international students wrote a letter to the university’s president and the head of its international center, asking for the school to help students with financial hardships. 

“Some students are expected to help their families financially using proceeds from their internship,” the students wrote. “There are also students who have paid for rent and flights using loans that they hoped to cover with their internship earnings, as well as others who have no place to sleep, since their housing arrangements were guaranteed by their work benefits.” 

Yang Song, a rising senior at Princeton who helped write the letter, received his visa about a week ago after applying in February. That was not in time for his May 28 start date at a New York hedge fund. 

Mr. Song, 21, a computer science major from Australia, is one of 10 Princeton students — out of roughly 90 who applied — to receive a work permit for the summer. He has watched friends lose positions at high-profile companies because they could not meet training and orientation requirements. His company created a special onboarding process for him, and he started last week.

“I was one of the fortunate ones,” he said. 

Mr. Song said international students were urging Princeton to follow the lead of other institutions in finding a solution that would prevent international students from facing the same predicament in the future. 

Yale sprang into action days after receiving a petition from more than 150 students, according to the student newspaper The Yale Daily News, announcing a course in the fall that will allow the university, rather than the federal government, to approve off-campus employment for international students over the summer. 

Ben Change, a spokesman for Princeton, said the university was “very concerned about the obstacles and delays international students continue to face and are aware of the very real, tangible impact and financial strain this situation is having on them.” 

“We are focused on finding solutions in light of students’ near-term needs while taking into account longer-term  implications for our programs, and are working in Washington with our partners to alleviate the situation,” he said.

At Columbia, where students are waiting to start internships at prominent news organizations, the delay is particularly excruciating.

As an intern at The Seattle Globalist, Ms. Verma wrote one of her first articles about the barriers — including the Optional Practical Training application process — that international students face navigating the job market. She wants to report on the plight that she and her fellow classmates are facing. But without her visa, that would be illegal.

“Instead, I spend every day incessantly refreshing my case status page to see if anything’s changed,” Ms. Verma said. “And it hasn’t.” 

Source: The New York Times