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New School Year Comes With Stiffer Penalties For Foreign Scholars Who Overstay Visas

The Geisel Library is seen from the UC San Diego campus in this undated photo.

Photo by Milan Kovacevic

Above: The Geisel Library is seen from the UC San Diego campus in this undated photo.

San Diego’s universities are telling international students and faculty to be extra cautious heading into the new school year. Under policy changes that go into effect Thursday, these scholars are subject to steeper consequences if they accidentally overstay their visas.

Currently, if an international student loses legal status for, say, becoming ill and dropping below the number of classes required by their visa, it isn’t a big deal. The government reinstates them and they go on with their studies.

Under the new set of policies, the student becomes deportable the moment they lose status and could unwittingly put him or herself at risk of being permanently banned from the United States.

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“The accrual of unlawful presence is a radical shift from more than 20 years of policy guidance,” said Dulce Dorado, director of UC San Diego’s International Students and Programs Office.

Accrual of unlawful presence is basically the amount of time someone resides in the country without permission. That accrual traditionally has not started until an individual is notified that their visa is no longer active. Beginning Thursday, it’s possible they could be in the United States illegally and not even know it.

Again, take the case of a student who drops classes and then needs to apply to have their visa reinstated:

“If a reinstatement case were to take three or four months to be processed, which is about the typical timeframe now for (U.S. Citizenship and) Immigration Services, that would mean then, if for some reason that application was denied, that student would have already been accruing unlawful presence and may not even be aware of it,” Dorado said.

The longer someone has been in the country illegally, the harder it is for them to return to the U.S.

“It’s a fundamental issue of fairness in terms of these, what I see as minor infractions and then the consequences are dire in terms of having three year, or ten year or permanent bars from being admissible to the United States,” Dorado said.

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The Trump administration has also given adjudicators, the officials deciding appeals and extensions, more discretion in denying them outright. That could make accrual of unlawful presence more likely.

“If we forget to include some required documentation in the initial submission of the petition, say we forget to include the diploma, they could just outright deny that now, whereas before they would have sent us a request for evidence,” said Roark Miller, who heads the UCSD office that works with international faculty.

The new policies stem from a 2017 executive order that expanded immigration enforcement “in order to ensure the public safety of the American people in communities across the United States as well as to ensure that our Nation’s immigration laws are faithfully executed,” the order reads.

RELATED: His Parents Were Deported Two Weeks Before College, Now He’s A UC San Diego Graduate

Department of Homeland Security data released Tuesday shows 701,900 of 52.6 million people who entered the U.S. on visas and were expected to leave in 2017 overstayed. That’s about 1 percent.

The rate is higher, between 2 and 3 percent, for individuals with J and F visas — those typically used in university settings. H1-B visas are also common but not included in the report.

“Looking at it from the perspective of a researcher or faculty member, they are invited here to teach our students and to do cutting-edge research, and they are really involved in this research,” Miller said. “Their focus is not immigration.”

“The current immigration policies and those that we foresee happening in the future are very complex. We’re not really sure how they’re going to be implemented. Some things are changing quite frequently,” Dorado said. “So there’s a need to make sure that they understand what’s going on and we’re here to help them.”

UCSD has about 8,500 international students and 2,700 international faculty.

The 2017 executive order that led to expanded immigration enforcement also called for immigration officials to clamp down on international scholars who overstay their visas. Those policies go into effect Thursday and could impact thousands of international students and faculty at San Diego universities.

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