Enrollment Blog

Higher ed’s most pressing immigration questions, answered

Advice from legal experts about what you should know—and what to do next


Immigration policy in the United States is off to a tumultuous start this year. The various renditions of the Trump administration's immigration executive orders have been signed, enacted, protested, litigated, and—in the first instance—blocked by a ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. A similar ruling on the second, revised executive order currently hangs in the balance in the Fourth Circuit.

Our members have been left in a similar state of uncertainty. Many enrollment officials wonder what impact these shifting, and often-confusing, policy changes might have on the students and campuses they serve.

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To address their concerns, EAB hosted a webconference panel on February 22 with legal experts from the international law firm Hogan Lovells. Our panelists helped members understand how the rapidly changing iterations of immigration law could affect their ability to recruit, retain, and protect their international students. Webconference attendance was our largest ever, with hundreds of participants from private, public, and community colleges across the United States and Canada—a testament to the importance of immigration policy to our members.

Although little is currently certain about immigration policy, the insights from the Hogan Lovells lawyers point to several steps enrollment officials can take now to anticipate potential new realities stemming from President Trump’s executive orders.

Urge caution to your current international students

Many of our members expressed concern that their current international students and staff will not be able to travel to and from their home countries. Some institutions are advising international students to travel only if critically important—and to anticipate longer timelines to secure visas.

As President Trump has called for “extreme vetting” of visa applicants—and because the current executive order directs the Department of Homeland Security to create new standards—your international students and faculty should be prepared for requisite in-person interviews for all visa applications and additional screenings, as indicated by diplomatic cables recently sent by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Be sure that your international students and faculty understand potential changes to visa requirements and allot more time to complete them.

Understand ICE policies and cultivate a university position on undocumented students

Although some enrollment leaders might fear Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detaining the international students they recruited to their school, deportations have not occurred on college campuses thus far.

Without precedent, there is no case law on whether ICE requires a warrant to appear on campuses. Hogan Lovells experts suggest that institutions can likely expect ICE to secure warrants to enter more private spaces such as residence halls. Be aware that the requirement for campus law enforcement to support federal forces with potential deportations may vary at private and public institutions, as campus enforcement at public institutions typically derive authority from local or state police.

Institutions will also likely grapple with difficult decisions regarding orders to report undocumented students. With federal education funding policies also now in flux, these decisions will require careful agility. Those that refuse to report undocumented students are said to be “sanctuary campuses.” Although “sanctuary campus” is not an existing legal standard, undocumented students are protected by The Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Under this act, all student records—including those of undocumented students—are private.

Higher education institutions are not currently obligated to affirmatively report undocumented individuals to federal authorities. However, institutions also cannot knowingly harbor individuals or thwart investigations.

Anticipate a newly apprehensive applicant pool

Enrollment leaders at your institution will likely encounter a more reluctant prospective student population abroad. A recent EAB | Royall & Company survey found about one-third of international students reported decreased interest in attending a U.S. institution because of the current political climate.

In another recent survey conducted by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), 39% of surveyed institutions indicated a decline in applications from international students, while 35% reported an increase and 26% reported no change in applicant numbers.

We encourage enrollment officials to adapt their recruiting messages and campaign strategies to address international students’ concerns and to brace for the possibility that fewer international students will choose to enroll this year. Leaders should therefore consider means to recoup the potential tuition revenue lost to their reluctance.

Explore—and even earmark—alternate financial aid for DACA recipients

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) temporarily protects undocumented students from deportation, but its revocation would seriously impact the financial aid of the students it now benefits.

DACA was enacted by President Obama through an executive order in 2012, and undocumented individuals who entered the U.S. before their 16th birthday and before 2007 are eligible for the program. DACA recipients receive protection from deportation and can apply for two-year, renewable work permits. Because President Obama created DACA through an executive order, President Trump could also reverse DACA through an executive order.

DACA currently enables recipients to submit FAFSAs to apply for state and institutional aid. While states cannot legalize students’ residency status, 16 states and four state university systems allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. Five states also extend state financial aid to undocumented students.

If President Trump were to end DACA, its recipients will be unable to file the FAFSA and would no longer receive work permits. Institutions wishing to retain their DACA students would therefore need alternative funding to make their education affordable.

While it may not be possible to predict the ultimate result of future changes to U.S. immigration policy, there are still actionable steps enrollment leaders and institutions can take to prepare and mitigate impacts on their enrollment numbers, international appeal, and finances.

See our full survey on the travel ban's implications for higher education

Download our full report on the effect of the political climate on international student enrollment, which surveys more than 2,100 students from 150 countries.

Download the survey


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