This year, the Department of Homeland Security extended Special Student Relief (SSR) to international students with an F-1 visa from Myanmar (Burma), Syria, and Venezuela. Generally, this designation gives international students more flexibility related to their duration of status, course load, and employment eligibility in recognition of emergency circumstances occurring in their native countries.
It makes sense for students from these countries to allow them to work and adjust their workload if necessary. It’s in the best interest of U.S. educational institutions to help students mitigate pressing circumstances that could negatively impact their ability to succeed while studying in the U.S. What’s more, it’s already the status quo for our domestic students who can make these changes without regulation, whenever they deem it necessary or preferable. Allowing students to work on and off-campus also allows them to explore different professions, supplement their budgets, and meet and interact with more students and Americans.
Equally coherent is a policy that extends those same benefits to students from other countries — namely Temporary Protected Status (TPS)-designated countries — experiencing similar emergent difficulties relating to the economy, war and extreme violence, and natural disasters.
Demonstrative of the overlap between SSR and TPS is DHS’s recent designation of Burma for both in late May. There, DHS saw a need for SSR and TPS relief in light of “a February 2021 military coup, which has led to continuing violence, arbitrary detentions, use of lethal violence against peaceful protestors, and the worsening of humanitarian conditions.”
The justification satisfies the requirements for TPS and those similar requirements for SSR status. The Secretary of DHS may designate a country for TPS due to “ongoing armed conflict (such as civil war); environmental disaster (such as earthquake or hurricane), or an epidemic.” Likewise, SSR applies when emergent circumstances — “world events that affect F-1 Students from a particular region and create significant financial hardships, such as but not limited to: natural disasters, wars, and military conflicts” — occur. For both (nearly identical) designations, it makes sense to allow these students a bit more flexibility in their course of study.
Why don’t all eligible F-1 students apply for TPS if it’s available? It’s complicated. For some F-1 students, it may make sense to apply for TPS status. For others — especially those from countries with expectations of shorter TPS designations — it may make more sense to keep F-1 designation to ensure no interruption in their education to reapply for a student visa should their country’s TPS designation end. But there are pitfalls for SSR status, too. For example, it sometimes expires before an extension is granted, forcing F-1 students to stop working until (or if) an extension is granted. It creates uncertainty and complications for each individual student.
By automatically extending SSR to all F-1 students from TPS-designated countries and regions effective through the end of designation, the U.S. can avoid gaps between SSR extensions and help students anticipate future changes. Moreover, for each regional or country-specific designation, the DHS Secretary can also cobble together a combination of the kinds of relief that make sense for students.
And we can go a step further by extending SSR status to all F-1 students right now due to the COVID pandemic. There is little doubt that the ongoing pandemic is creating significant educational disruption across the globe, to varying and changing degrees. Rather than forcing international students to attempt to mitigate and deal with wildly unanticipated changes, we should offer blanket flexibility to allow students to continue their studies at a comfortable pace, with time to supplement changing levels of support as families, countries, and regions grapple with COVID-19.