For international students and exchange visitors in the United States, things changed dramatically, if quietly, on August 9, 2018. On that date, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) published guidance that swiftly altered how “unlawful presence”—being in the country without legal status—can now be calculated.
Students can now begin accruing unlawful presence the day after their education or exchange programs end. (This also applies to others in F, J, or M non-immigrant status.) This can potentially bar them, and their dependents, from readmission to the U.S. for 10 years.
The End of Flexibility
Historically, non-immigrant students and exchange visitors have been admitted as “duration of status” (D/S). This provided flexibility for this group of visitors. D/S allowed international students and exchange visitors to complete their studies and remain in the country legally. They simply needed to continue qualifying for that non-immigrant status.
D/S was a practical, reasonable acknowledgment that exact graduation dates are difficult to pinpoint (as are the end dates of other various education programs). Before August 9, D/S students did not accrue unlawful presence until they filed an application. Then, USCIS had to determine that they had violated their status. Otherwise, an immigration judge had to order the exclusion, deportation, or removal of the student or visitor.
But things have changed. Now, this is how a footnote in the guidance reads:
Under the former policy, an alien admitted for duration of status who overstayed or violated such status did not immediately begin accruing a period of unlawful presence for purposes of INA 212(a)(9)(B). Nevertheless, such alien was illegally present in the United States and would be amenable to removal proceedings under INA 237(a)(1)(C), which renders deportable aliens who violate their non-immigrant status or any condition of their entry.
How Can You Interpret This New Rule?
According to a Broadcast Message to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) users on August 10, students and exchange visitors will now begin accruing unlawful presence on the earliest of the following:
- The day after they no longer pursue the course of study or the authorized activity or the day after they engage in an unauthorized activity;
- The day after completing the course of study or program, including any authorized practical training, plus any authorized grace period;
- The day after the Form I-94 expires; or
- The day after an immigration judge orders them excluded, deported, or removed (whether or not the decision is appealed).
The first bullet point is particularly worrisome. There are many elements to a “full course of study,” as well as “authorized activity.” Some depend on the education or exchange program, and others depend on level of education.
With this new policy memo in place, the U.S. immigration system assumes that each student and exchange visitor is in charge of his or her own status and eligibility. Students and exchange visitors now need to be diligent. Check in with international student advisers and attorneys to ensure that you are in compliance.
Why Is Unlawful Presence Important?
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, a person who is unlawfully present in the U.S. for a period of more than 180 days but less than one year, and voluntarily leaves the U.S. before removal proceedings begins, will not be able to reenter the U.S. for three years from the date of departure or removal. When the unlawful presence period is a year or more, the bar for readmission to the U.S. is 10 years.
The 3- or 10-year bar from readmission to the U.S. can disrupt people’s education, career, and life goals. Although the government offers some waivers for the unlawful presence, they are rare. And with this new policy memo, students and exchange visitors may begin to accrue unlawful presence without knowing it—and therefore not realize that they need to apply for a waiver.
The eligibility requirements of U.S. immigration law can be confusing. Unlawful presence and other immigration terms can be difficult concepts to grasp.
Incoming and current international students and exchange visitors now need to be meticulous about their status. Therefore, sure to check with your advisers and responsible officers every few months. See if any immigration policies have changed, and how they might affect you. In addition, work with your school or sponsoring organization—as well as with a knowledgeable immigration attorney—to properly plan and prepare for your stay in the U.S.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).