On May 25, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas added Burma to the list of countries with Special Student Relief (SSR) designation, easing restrictions for many Burmese recipients enrolled in the F-1 nonimmigrant student visa program. In recent months, Burma has been embroiled in nationwide civil unrest following a military coup that deposed the country’s democratically elected government. In response, the new Department of Homeland Security guidance reduced the number of required credit hours per semester and loosened work restrictions for many Burmese F-1 visa holders. With this shift, the Biden administration provided needed relief to the 1,828 Burmese students enrolled at US institutions during the 2019-20 academic year. The administration should take the time to also consider the many other F-1 students negatively impacted by turmoil in their home countries who would benefit from similar protections.
Even under normal circumstances, the regulations governing initial approval for an F-1 student visa are substantial. A prospective student must first apply to — and be accepted by — a certified U.S. academic institution. Students must then register with the web-based SEVIS monitoring system that allows the U.S. government to monitor their status throughout their stay in the United States. Finally, once a student is cleared to request a student visa, they must declare a non-U.S. permanent residence and prove that they possess sufficient funds to support themselves throughout their education. For applicants originating from areas of extreme instability — as is the case with Burma — maintaining compliance with these standards can be exceedingly difficult, as the families of applicants can be subject to the loss of these required assets at any time due to no fault of their own.
These initial requirements for Burmese students applying for a F-1 student visa have not changed, even under the amended DHS guidance. Instead, restrictions have been eased only for individuals with active F-1 visas who can demonstrate severe economic hardship on account of the deteriorating situation in Burma. Since the February coup, violence and persecution by the military junta have led to the displacement of nearly 250,000 Burmese citizens — a symptom of the instability which has led some analysts to project a contraction in Burmese GDP by as much as 20 percent in the coming year. DHS cited several key impacts from the ongoing crisis in the country, namely the closure of banks and interruptions in cash withdrawal services, in addition to significant price increases for many necessities, such as food and medicine.
Under standard guidelines, students holding F-1 visas must maintain a course load considered ‘full-time’ — usually a minimum of 12 credit hours — until completing the given academic program. Additionally, students cannot work off-campus during their first academic year and are limited to 20 hours of work per week while school is in session. Taken together, these regulations maximize the educational cost per semester while limiting the earning potential of students on F-1 visas during their time in the U.S., meaning that these individuals must rely heavily upon prior savings or the income of family abroad to support themselves.
Instead of requiring 12 credit hours per semester, DHS allows students pursuing a traditional four-year undergraduate degree under an SSR designation to remain in compliance while taking six credits, with graduate degree programs requiring a minimum of three. In addition, the regulation prohibiting off-campus employment during a student’s first year has been waived, and the limitations placed upon the number of hours available to work during the semester have been removed. Finally, any F-1 student who receives an on- or off-campus work authorization is eligible for three credit hours of online education to apply to their minimum course load, better accommodating expanded work opportunities.
This announcement comes on the heels of two similar shifts in guidance last month, providing SSR accommodation for existing F-1 student visa holders of Venezuelan and Syrian nationality. The extension of SSR status to these cases is a valuable first step, as the countries from which these cohorts originate have faced considerable hardship for many years. It is important to note, however, that many other countries that have seen similar turmoil have not been given the same treatment. For example, Yemen and Ukraine have been engulfed in various degrees of civil conflict for many years, while F-1 visa holders from these countries have not been given an equal chance to demonstrate hardships. To ensure that all aspiring students who demonstrate required credentials are given a fair opportunity to succeed, the U.S. must expand its use of the SSR designation to reasonably accommodate severe hardship wherever it may occur.
Equipped with the tools provided by SSR designation, thousands of Burmese F-1 visa holders will now be better able to adapt to financial uncertainty, providing them the flexibility they need to succeed academically. Going forward, policymakers would be wise to consider the enduring positive impact that extending this relief can have for the United States into the future. Whether these students ultimately pursue careers in Burma, the U.S., or elsewhere, they will not soon forget that the U.S. government was willing to go to bat for them when they needed it the most — that matters.