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Lehigh University is home to more than 1,000 international students and scholars. As part of our work to support our international community and to enable the university to continue recruiting the most talented individuals from around the world, the Office of International Affairs advocates for public policies that promote the free exchange of people and ideas. This page lists our responses to recent government actions.

Request to Speed Processing of Student Visas and Exempt Students from Travel Restrictions

As we look to the fall 2021 semester, international students continue to face long delays in getting visas, as well as travel restrictions. In March 18, 2021, the American Council on Education (ACE) and other associations representing higher education wrote a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State and Secretary of Homeland Security urging them to take action to allow international students and scholars to return to U.S. campuses for the fall semester.

Lehigh Response

In April 2021, Lehigh joined nine other Pennsylvania colleges and universities in writing to the state's Congressional delegation, requesting that they push the secretaries to take the actions requested in the ACE letter:

  • Ensure the timely and efficient processing of visa applications and work authorizations for international students and scholars.
  • Commit to either reopening consulates for visa processing where possible, or if local conditions prevent reopening, waive in-person interview requirements or allow visa interviews to be conducted online.
  • Expand student exemptions for academic travel beyond currently exempted countries and regions to locations where restrictions remain.

Executive Actions Freezing or Reversing Previous Regulations

On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden became the 46th president of the United States. That day, President Biden announced several executive actions related to higher education and international students:

  • “Preserving and Fortifying Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)” is a White House memorandum issued on January 20, 2021 to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary directing him to preserve and strengthen DACA. Read the memo >
  • The “Proclamation on Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to The United States” revokes previous executive orders limiting visas for nationals of several African and Muslim-majority countries. Read more about the travel ban from NAFSA >
  • The White House directed a “Freeze and Review of All Pending Regulations,” which means that all proposed rules from the previous administration will not be published or finalized, including proposed regulations to eliminate duration of status. All final rules already published to the Federal Register, but not yet in effect, are to be postponed for 60 days, including H-1B visa rules and the H-1B visa lottery rule. Read more about the regulatory freeze and its impact >

On January 20, President Biden also announced that he will propose a new immigration bill to Congress. According to a fact sheet from the White House, among other provisions, “This bill clears employment-based visa backlogs, recaptures unused visas, reduces lengthy wait times, and eliminates per-country visa caps. The bill makes it easier for graduates of U.S. universities with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the United States; improves access to green cards for workers in lower-wage sectors; and eliminates other unnecessary hurdles for employment-based green cards.” The bill will need to go through the legislative process to become law.

ICE OPT Enforcement Actions

On October 21, 2020, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a news release titled “ICE arrests 15 nonimmigrant students for OPT-related fraud.” The release announced “preliminary results from Operation OPTical Illusion, a law enforcement operation targeting nonimmigrant students who fraudulently used the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program to remain in the United States... The operation, which is ongoing, resulted in the arrest of 15 nonimmigrant students who claimed to be employed by companies that don't exist.” At a press briefing the same day, Acting Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Ken Cuccinelli said that officials had identified more than 1,110 students who were violating the terms of their immigration status and that work permits for about 700 of those students were being revoked. Read more about these actions from NAFSA >

On January 13, 2021, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced plans to develop an OPT Employment Compliance Unit to investigate claims of misuse of Optional Practical Training (OPT) against participants and employers. On January 26, 2021, SEVP rescinded this plan, following additional reviews of ICE’s current OPT compliance efforts. Read more >

Lehigh Response

Optional practical training, or OPT, lets eligible F-1 students work in their field of study in the United States for one to three years after completing their academic program. In 2018-2019, more than 230,000 international students participated in OPT, according to the Institute of International Education. OPT allows these students to use their education to contribute to the U.S. economy. These ICE actions target a very small number of OPT participants and should not reflect on the program as a whole.

Through Lehigh's Office of Government Relations, the university spoke directly to our elected officials in Congress to express the harm these actions would have on Lehigh students, the university, and our region and state.

Changes to H-1B Nonimmigrant Visa Program

On October 8, 2020, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published the interim federal rule, “Strengthening the H-1B Nonimmigrant Visa Classification Program.” This rule narrows the definition of “specialty occupations” that would be eligible for H-1Bs and places new restrictions on H-1B visa holders who are placed by their employers at third-party worksites. Read more about the proposed rule from NAFSA >

On the same date, the Department of Labor (DOL) published the interim final rule, “Strengthening Wage Protections for the Temporary and Permanent Employment of Certain Aliens in the United States.” This rule significantly increases minimum wage requirements for H-1B visa holders. 

Originally, the DHS rule was to be effective December 7, 2020, and the DOL rule was effective immediately. On December 1, 2020, a federal judge set aside these two rules, stating that the administration “failed to show there was good cause to dispense with the rational and thoughtful discourse that is provided by the APA's [Administrative Procedures Act's] notice and comment requirements.” Read more >

On January 14, 2021, DOL published a final rule titled Strengthening Wage Protections for the Temporary and Permanent Employment of Certain Aliens in the United States, effective March 15, 2021. Because this DOL final rule was published in the Federal Register but had not yet gone into effect, the Biden Administration's January 20, 2021 Regulatory Freeze Pending Review memorandum will postpone its effective date and require a review for "any questions of fact, law, and policy." Read more from NAFSA >

Lehigh Response

The H-1B visa program allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations. Colleges use the program to hire international faculty and staff members, and some international students use it to stay in the U.S. and work after they graduate. These rules substantially restrict the program, and make it harder to hire the most qualified employees. Furthermore, in publishing them as interim final rules, the administration bypassed normal public notice-and-comment rule-making processes.

Lehigh University is a member of the Presidents Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, which is a plaintiff in Chamber of Commerce et al. v. DHS et al., a lawsuit challenging these rules filed October 19, 2020.

Proposal to Replace Duration of Status, Department of Homeland Security

On September 25, 2020, the Department of Homeland Security published a proposed rule that eliminates the “duration of status” standard for international students and exchange visitors (F-1 students, F-2 dependents, J-1 exchange visitors, and J-2 dependents) and replaces it with a fixed visa time period not to exceed four years. Read more about the proposed rule from NAFSA: The Association of International Educators.

When the Biden Administration issued its Regulatory Freeze memorandum on January 20, 2021, DHS had not yet published this rule. Therefore, no final rule will advance "until a department or agency head appointed or designated by the President after noon on January 20, 2021, reviews and approves the rule."

Lehigh response

This proposed rule places a significant burden on international students and scholars and furthers the message that the United States is not a welcoming place. It will make it harder for us to continue to recruit the brightest minds from around the world and exacerbate the nationwide decrease in international enrollments that began in 2015-2016. We have asked that the proposed rule be withdrawn in its entirety, and that admission for the duration of status remain in effect.

Nathan Urban, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, and Cheryl Matherly, vice president and vice provost for international affairs, submitted a comment on behalf of Lehigh University. Read the comment (pdf) >

Lehigh University joined with seven other Pennsylvania colleges and universities to submit a comment. Read the comment (pdf) >

As a member of the Presidents’ Alliance of Higher Education and Immigration, Lehigh University joined the Presidents’ Alliance Comment Opposing New Proposed Duration of Status Rules. Read the comment >

Online Study for International Students

On July 6, 2020, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) issued a broadcast message modifying exceptions to the online study rule that it put in place for the spring and summer semesters. On July 14, the federal government rescinded this guidance and reverted to the guidance issued in March. For fall 2020, international students in the U.S. will be allowed to take more than one virtual class and still maintain active student status. Read more about this guidance from NAFSA >

Lehigh Response

This new guidance was extremely disruptive to students and to universities like Lehigh. OISS was in direct contact with our international students to provide guidance and support. We also worked with our congressional leaders, partner organizations and peer colleges and universities to collectively take action in support of our international students.

June 22 Executive Order Affecting H-1B and J Visa Holders

On June 22, 2020, President Trump signed an executive order suspending entry into the U.S. by foreign nationals through several nonimmigrant work visa programs, including H-1B, J and L visas, effective June 24. The proclamation does not address F-1 OPT (Optional Practical Training) or STEM OPT benefits. Read more about the executive order from NAFSA >

Update: Presidential Proclamation 10052, which temporarily suspended the entry of certain H-1B, H-2B, J (for certain categories within the Exchange Visitor Program), and L nonimmigrants, expired on March 31, 2021. Read more >

Lehigh Response

Many international scholars at Lehigh are on H-1B visas. The visa suspension will apply to any newly hired H-1B scholar who is overseas and did not secure a visa by the effective date of the proclamation. Current Lehigh faculty and staff on H-1B visas who are physically in the United States are exempted from the proclamation.

The Office of International Students and Scholars contacted Lehigh department chairs to update them on the executive order and the potential impact on H-1B scholars. OISS staff also conducted an audit of immigration files to assess the potential impact on our international community of scholars holding H-1B visas.

The J non-immigrant visa category allows foreign nationals to participate in work-and study-based exchange visitor programs. J-1 visa holders at Lehigh include visiting international scholars and international exchange students. The proclamation applies to foreign nationals seeking to use the J-1 visa to participate “in an intern, trainee, teacher, camp counselor, au pair, or summer work travel program.” It does not apply to J-1 visa holders coming to the U.S. as college students, professors or research scholars.