Bipartisan Bill Proposes Student Visa Changes With Workforce Pathways

Part of the bill would allow F-1 student visas to be "dual intent" visas, opening the door for international students to remain in the U.S.
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Published on June 2, 2023
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  • The bipartisan Dignity Act is co-sponsored by four Republicans and four Democrats in the House of Representatives.
  • The expansive bill touches on many immigration issues, including student visas.
  • Notably, the proposal would allow F-1 student visas to be "dual intent" visas, which could benefit international students.
  • It would also allow Ph.D. graduates in STEM fields to remain and work in the U.S. after graduation.

The bipartisan Dignity Act proposes major changes to the U.S. immigration system, including student visas.

Most notably, the Dignity Act would change F-1 student visas — the most common visa for international college students — to be "dual intent" visas. This means those applying to study in the U.S. would no longer have to state that they do not intend to stay in the U.S. after graduation.

The Dignity Act would also grant O-1 visas to international students who graduate from a U.S. university with a Ph.D. from any science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) program, or a healthcare or medical program. An O-1 visa, also known as an "extraordinary ability visa," would allow these graduates to live and work in the U.S. after graduation.

Higher education advocates lauded many of the bill's proposals that would impact college students.

"If you look at any survey of prospective international students, it's really important to them to know they will have an opportunity to apply their studies to work beyond campus and help launch their careers," Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, told BestColleges.

The Dignity Act would make this possible for international students.

"The U.S. is more behind the curve than leading in this area," she said.

U.S. Reps. María Elvira Salazar, a Republican representing Florida, and Veronica Escobar, a Democrat representing Texas, co-introduced the Dignity Act on May 23.

Original co-sponsors included: Republican Reps. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon of Puerto Rico, Lori Chavez-DeRemer of Oregon, and Mike Lawler of New York, and Democratic Reps. Hillary Scholten of Michigan, Kathy Manning of North Carolina, and Adriano Espaillat of New York.

The Importance of Dual Intent Student Visas

Allowing F-1 student visas to be dual intent has been a longtime goal of advocates like Sarah Spreitzer, vice president and chief of staff of government relations at the American Council on Education (ACE).

The current guidelines make it difficult for some prospective students to attend college in the U.S. If any student wants to study in the U.S. on an F-1 student visa, they must prove that they intend to leave the country after graduation.

Spreitzer told BestColleges that consular officers ask students to demonstrate that they have family in their home country or own property they intend to return to after graduation.

"This was a big problem for students from Afghanistan who may be in another country — like Pakistan — applying for a student visa in the U.S.," she said.

Feldblum said it's an essential step in keeping the U.S. competitive with other countries that offer clearer pathways to the workforce. She highlighted Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany as competing countries ahead of the U.S. in providing work opportunities after graduation due to their more flexible immigration policies.

"Right now, we're shooting ourselves in the foot by telling international students that they can't even want to stay [in the U.S.] after school," she said.

If F-1 visas become dual intent through the Dignity Act, it wouldn't offer an automatic pass to stay in the country after graduation. International students would still need to apply for another form of residency to remain in the country.

STEM Students Granted Extra Privileges

O-1 visas are offered to people with "extraordinary ability" in fields like science, arts, education, business, or athletics.

The Dignity Act would extend automatic O-1 visas for any international students who earn a Ph.D. in a STEM-related field in the U.S. It also applies to individuals with a Ph.D. related to a healthcare or medical profession, according to a summary of the bill.

"This ensures that individuals who earned [a Ph.D.] in high-demand STEM and healthcare fields in the U.S. can apply for an O visa and use their talents here if they want to, instead of being forced to return home as soon as they graduate," the summary states.

Feldblum said this would be another step in putting the U.S. on par with other countries trying to attract international students.

She added that she would like to see access to O-1 visas expanded further for international student graduates. That expansion could extend to all graduate-level students, as well as graduates from non-STEM-related fields.

"We know someone with a degree in music can also have exceptional abilities," Feldblum said.

Important Steps for Higher Education

Feldblum added that the Presidents' Alliance doesn't support every facet of the nearly 500-page Dignity Act, but the proposal includes essential steps for modernizing the student visa system for international students.

Spreitzer of ACE echoed that sentiment, adding that the fact that the bill has bipartisan support is a good sign of potential cross-party cooperation for immigration issues.

"I think we're hopeful that this is going to lead to a conversation about important issues like protections for our [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] recipients," she said.

It's difficult to predict whether the Dignity Act will gain traction, however, Spreitzer said.