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July 6, 2020

Physics Department Chair Holds Town Hall to Discuss Executive Order Regarding Immigration and Visas


A misty day on a seemingly empty main quad, during UChicago's spring break in 2020, after many students had departed from campus.

Lee Harris / The Chicago Maroon

Young-Kee Kim, the Chair of the Department of Physics, hosted a Zoom town hall Monday to discuss President Trump’s recent executive order regarding immigration and work-related visas, and its impact on students and academic professionals. The discussion focused on changes of visa status, travel between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and the suspension of visa services at U.S. embassies and consulates. The meeting’s primary speaker was Nick Seamons, the Director of UChicago’s Office of International Affairs (OIA).

The president signed an executive order, titled "Proclamation Suspending Entry of Aliens Who Present a Risk to the U.S. Labor Market Following the Coronavirus Outbreak," on June 22. This proclamation, which went into effect on June 24, extends the provisions of an earlier executive order signed on April 22, which suspends the entry of new immigrants into the United States without an already approved immigrant visa or other official travel document, until December 31, 2020. The April 22 order was due to expire on June 22.

The new proclamation suspends entry into the United States for anyone pursuing the following visas: H-1B, which allows for short-term specialized employment, H-2B, which allows for nonagricultural employment, H-4, which relates to dependents, such as spouses and children, of those on H-1B and H-2B visas, and L, which relates to intra-company transfers, such as for employees of multinational corporations. The restrictions on H-1B visas are the ones most likely to affect members of the Physics Department, as such visas are frequently used by professors and researchers.

Additionally, the executive order suspends some types of J-1 exchange visitor visas such as those that fall into the categories of “intern,” “trainee,” “teacher,” and “camp counselor.”

“[UChicago] does not currently sponsor any of these [J-1] classifications,” said Seamons, and noted that “teacher” refers specifically to one at an elementary or high school, rather than a lecturing position at a university, meaning that certain J-1 categories, such as “research scholars,” professors, and “short-term scholars” are exempted. Thus, members of the Physics Department and other people at UChicago that either have or are seeking J-1 visas are unlikely to be affected.

Seamons also mentioned that the executive order exempts several other categories, including F-1 student visas, B-1 and B-2 visitor visas, O-1 visas, and workers entering the country for specific purposes, such as those “working in the food supply.”

Following a recap of the proclamation, Seamons held a Q&A session, consisting both of live and pre-submitted questions. One topic that came up several times was whether students and faculty applying for a H-1B visa would be impacted, particularly in the case of a J-1 visa holder applying for an H-1B visa. 

In response, Seamons said, “If you are currently in the U.S., you can submit an application for change of status and not be impacted.” Seamons then added, “The only way that you’d be impacted is if you ... travel abroad [and then apply for the visa from abroad].”

Another audience member asked whether a dependent visa holder who has already applied for a J-1 visa, but has not yet been approved would be affected. “That is not the case.” Seamons said. “If you are already in the U.S., and have already submitted your application for change of status [prior to June 24, the effective date of the executive order], you will not be affected.”

However, Seamons was unable to fully answer some other questions proposed during the town hall. When asked whether an Indian student living in Europe would have to return to India in order to apply for a J-1 visa, Seamons said that it “would be dependent on visa reciprocity between [India’s] government, and the government where [they] currently reside,” and mentioned that student should contact their local U.S. embassy. 

In particular, Seamons mentioned that it may depend on whether the student’s application requires a background check, and, if so, the student might actually have to remain in their current country while the background check is being performed.

When asked about restrictions on travel across the borders of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, which is currently closed to “non-essential” travel due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Seamons said that these restrictions “remain somewhat unclear.” Seamons continued, saying that examples of “essential” travel include crossing the border to work or attend school, but mentioned that, at other schools, “some [students]... have been denied entry from Canada as the school is operating virtually.”

In March, the U.S. Department of State suspended several in-person visa-related services at U.S. embassies and consulates on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, including mandatory visa interviews and the reissuance of visa stickers, making it difficult for visa applications to be processed. 

Seamons said that “there are a number of organizations and institutions that are pressing the DoS for flexibility on [in-person visa appointments],” but the Department of State has not moved from its policy of requiring services to be in-person. There is no set date for reopening the Department, though Seamons said it hoped to do so “as soon as possible.” 

Seamons also emphasized that, while entry may not be suspended for certain types of visas, due to the ongoing pandemic, entry is also prohibited for anyone who has been to any of several restricted countries in the past fourteen days. Seamons was unsure as to whether Hong Kong would be added to the list.

“I’ve learned with this [presidential] administration not to speculate on anything,” he said.

Seamons reiterated that it is difficult to know at this moment whether these restrictions will extend beyond December.

“A lot depends on what happens in [the presidential election in] early November,” said Seamons, adding that it is “somewhat of a good thing that this is happening in an election year.”

Seamons was also asked about possible avenues for advocacy or activism against the executive order. In his response, he mentioned NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a non-profit organization that provides advice to international students and educators, and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a coalition of several hundred high-ranking college and university officials that advocates on behalf of immigrant and international students.

Additional information about the presidential proclamation is available on the OIA website, and through several OIA newsletters.

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