How Biden’s immigration plan would affect colleges

by Joseph K. Clark

Dive Brief: 

  • President-elect Joe Biden is expected to unveil an immigration bill on Inauguration Day to allow unauthorized students to apply for permanent residence and increase the number of work and family visas available.
  • The Washington Post first reported that Biden will also pitch an eight-year pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. The legislation would immediately allow those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to apply for green cards.
  • Higher education experts said the proposal would create a more welcoming environment for unauthorized and international students, though it’s unclear how it will fare in Congress.

Dive Insight:

The incoming administration’s approach to immigration contrasts that of the outgoing one, which pushed policies that make it harder for unauthorized and international students to study in the U.S.

The cornerstone of Biden’s proposal is a direct pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. According to The Post, qualifying applicants could receive a green card after being placed under temporary status for five years. They could seek citizenship three years later.

However, immigrants with DACA, or a protected status for those fleeing war-torn or disaster-struck countries, can apply for green cards immediately. DACA was created in 2012 to shield unauthorized immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation.

This approach recognizes that DACA beneficiaries have been waiting for a chance to obtain permanent residence, said Gaby Pacheco, director of advocacy and communications for TheDream.Us, which awards college scholarships to unauthorized students. “We’re talking about eight years of people already being in the system,” she said.


Green cards will enable DACA recipients to apply for federal financial aid and state grants, which they’re currently barred from accessing. Some would also newly qualify for in-state college tuition.

Meanwhile, the eight-year pathway to citizenship benefits students who DACA doesn’t cover, said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the President’s Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. According to a report last year, of the roughly 450,000 unauthorized students attending a college or university in the U.S., only about half are eligible for or participating in DACA.

“It’s important from the perspective of higher education that the pathway to certainty, stability, to a future doesn’t stop with DACA recipients but encompasses the broader undocumented student population,” Feldblum said.

Biden’s immigration proposal may face hurdles in Congress. Though two recent Senate run-off elections in Georgia gave Democrats narrow control of the chamber, they must win over some Republicans to pass the legislation.

The plan also includes changes that could benefit international students, instructors, and researchers, such as making more employment- and family-based visas available.

That would likely spur more international students to come to the U.S., said Jenny Lee, an education policy professor at the University of Arizona. “We do know that international students, particularly graduate students, come to the United States, not just for quality education but also to find a better life for themselves and their families,” Lee said. “That means finding job opportunities.”

According to the annual Open Doors report, the number of international students in the U.S. declined for the first time over a decade during the 2019-20 academic year.

The drop followed several Trump administration policies hostile to international students, including banning visitors from several Muslim-majority countries. Though the order carved out some exemptions for students, higher ed groups argued it hampered colleges’ ability to recruit from these countries. Biden has vowed to reverse the travel ban on his first day.

But Feldblum said Biden should also implement a national strategy for recruiting and retaining international students. “The world has not stood still,” she said. “And we are behind the curve.”

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