Home >Opinion >Columns >International students won’t top the list of priorities for Trump or Biden

Voting for the US Presidential elections is over, and across the globe, with everyone keenly awaiting the results because of the extraordinary influence the US single-handedly has on the strategic shape of the world, on global politics, the global economy and, consequently, on the fortunes of even non-Americans. It is no wonder, then, that there is concern and expectation as to who would be the next occupant of the White House, and what that might entail.

As of now, some suggest a close finish, while others give Biden a reasonable margin of victory. Only an astrological prediction, so far, has forecast a Trump victory. But then again, as we know all too well, surprises are known to happen.

For Indians hoping to study, work, obtain residency and possibly, the coveted US citizenship, the foremost question is how their fortunes would be affected by the election results, as the impact could last the next four years. Is it Biden or Trump, in other words, who would serve their interests better.

Take the case of international students: for close to eight decades, the US has unambiguously been the preferred higher education destination for Indian students. The gifted few have gone to Ivy Leagues, but a majority gravitated to Tier 2 and Tier 3 institutions, achieved good grades, took up jobs, and settled in the US. All of this has been impacted by the Trump administration.

According to US government reports, there are over one million international students in the US, who contributed over $44 billion to the American economy in 2018 through fees and living expenses. The Trump administration announced that those international students whose classes were fully online, would not be allowed to stay in the country and then, there was a flip-flop. This triggered confusion, as students were unaware of what their visa status would be once the pandemic was over and what would happen to tuition and other expenditure they had incurred. This is significantly different from other countries where international students were allowed to stay on if they opted to do so and numerous support systems were put in place to accommodate their stay.

Furthermore, the Trump administration impacted skilled professionals by suspending international work visas, including the H-1B visa. In India, as indeed in many other parts of the world, this came as a surprising challenge and added further to the confusion. Both the decisions elicited sharp protests from US educational institutions, including Harvard and MIT, as well as from Wall Street. At one level, it caused confusion among the academic community and international students, apart from a dramatic loss in revenue. At another level, Wall Street, reeling under an economic downturn, suddenly found itself bereft of its workforce.

A reversal in policy is not expected should Trump win. He is driven by a nationalist agenda where his appeal to the electorate is based on populism and putting ‘Americans first’. With rising unemployment, such measures would be welcomed by common Americans. The best case scenario is that he would insist on caveats because of instances of gross misuse of the H-1B visas.

How would Biden react? He is known to be a left liberal and will be tempted to overturn all of Trump’s policies. It would be reasonable to assume that his immediate preoccupation would be the raging pandemic and when he feels he has got it under control and won the confidence of the American people, he would turn his attention to other and more substantive policy areas. The scenario analysis suggests that irrespective of who wins the Presidential race, things are not likely to look up in the near future for current and potential international students or for professionals.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that there is bipartisan support for the India-US relationship, which has attained a more robust and substantive trajectory that comprehensively embraces multiple verticals. This suggests that both the above policies could see softening from the US administration to accommodate Indian concerns.

Amit Dasgupta is an author and former diplomat who works in the area of international education. His last edited book is The Phoenix Rises: Lockdown Chronicles

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