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.
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 >
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. Read more about the proposed rule from NAFSA >
The DHS rule is effective December 7, 2020, and the DOL rule is effective immediately.
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.
As a proposed rule, this guidance is not yet law and does not have an effective date. A 30-day public comment period followed the publication of the proposed rule, with a comment deadline of October 26, 2020. DHS is now reviewing the comments.
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 >
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.
- A Message from Cheryl Matherly Announcing the Guidance Rescission (July 14)
- Lehigh Signs on to Presidents’ Alliance Amicus Brief in Support of Harvard/MIT Lawsuit Challenging SEVP directive (July 10)
- John Simon Joins Patriot League Presidents to Condemn Federal Action Targeting International Students (July 10)
- Lehigh and Five Other Pennsylvania Universities Request Support from State's Congressional Delegation (July 9)
- A Message from Provost Nathan Urban and Cheryl Matherly (July 9)
- Cheryl Matherly, vice president and vice provost for international affairs, speaks to Inside Higher Ed (July 9)
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 >
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.