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Letter from President Bacow to Acting Chief Hageman

Dear Acting Chief Hageman:

With deep concern, I write to provide the following comments on the DHS proposal to restrict the initial period of authorized stay for international students and scholars to two or four years. By casting a wide net and arbitrarily bounding international students and scholars, the proposed rule would create negative and cascading consequences for US research, scholarship, and training; weaken our national recovery and future competitiveness; and undermine our national response to global challenges in science, security, and public health. Harvard University strenuously opposes this rule.

The proposal, “Establishing a Fixed Time Period of Admission and an Extension of Stay Procedure for Nonimmigrant Academic Students, Exchange Visitors, and Representatives of Foreign Information Media,” would replace the longstanding duration of status policy with fixed terms of up to two or four years, with an extension of stay required to remain in the United States beyond the initial term. Although DHS points to overstay rates to rationalize the outsized burden the two-year term would place on students and scholars of more than 50 countries, principally in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, they do not address public criticism of the overstay calculations that provides the pretext for the policy, nor do they adequately justify this overbroad and discriminatory treatment based on national origin, which affects more than 300 students and scholars at the University.

According to the proposed rule, the maximum four-year fixed term is based on DHS’s perception of the structure of postsecondary education in the United States, whereby the agency claims that students normally earn a bachelor’s degree in four years—a view that misunderstands higher education and the usual academic progress of full-time undergraduates, both domestic and international. In fact, the US Department of Education estimates that only 62 percent of full-time undergraduates complete their degree in six years. Harvard College has among the highest graduation rates in the country, with 86 percent and 97 percent completing in four and six years respectively. Some of the students who take “additional” time are enrolled in dual-degree programs, are pursuing a secondary course of study, or simply change majors. The fixed four-year term is inconsistent with these experiences and will deter talented undergraduates from pursuing their degrees in the United States.

Additionally, the proposal would be detrimental for international students and scholars from all countries in graduate and professional-level degree programs, for which the expectation is an average five to seven years of advanced coursework and independent scholarship or training. Although DHS is dismissive of the relatively small numbers of those who would be impacted by the four-year term, at Harvard, we conservatively estimate that it would affect more than 1,300 PhD candidates and 140 doctoral candidates outside the PhD, including the MD/PhD program, which trains the next generation of physician-scientists. It also would affect MD candidates who take a fifth year for independent research, which includes those in most surgical subspecialties, and dual-degree candidates in graduate and professional-level programs ranging from business and divinity and education and public health, where international student populations vary from just over 10 percent to close to a half.

Effectively, the proposed rule would require these international students and scholars to reapply for permission to remain in the United States throughout the course of their academic or training program, saddling them with the administrative and financial burden of proving over and again that they continue to satisfy the requirements for admission to the United States. This requirement reaches beyond cases where students or scholars have taken longer than expected to complete their programs. It would apply to all who want to stay beyond the two- or four-year term, literally at the midcourse, with DHS determining whether a student or scholar may finish a previously approved program or course of study. For these cases, the proposed rule sets no standard and imposes no constraint on the discretion of USCIS officers in their review of these cases. More troubling, for those seeking an extension beyond the expected end dates of their programs, the proposed rule would require them to demonstrate a “compelling academic reason” or other unusual circumstance for approval, suggesting that these are not routine reviews. In all cases, the proposed rule would appear to place USCIS officers in the position of determining whether students or scholars are making sufficient progress in their advanced research, scholarship, or training to justify an extension of their stay, which, for all their knowledge of immigration law, are judgments they are not qualified to make.

This is an inappropriate intrusion into academic matters, and it is unwarranted. When a student or exchange visitor scholar begins a program of study or research at a DHS-certified college or university, a corresponding record is created in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), a web-based reporting system that allows DHS to collect information about and monitor the activities of international students and scholars throughout their stay in the United States. Unlike those in other nonimmigrant visa categories, SEVIS tracks more than 150 data elements on each student and scholar, including enrollment status, address, major or research specialty, training, and anticipated completion date. This DHS database is routinely accessed by the State Department, ports of entry, and US embassies and consulates, and any changes in a student or scholar’s status are updated in real time, supporting the federal government’s need to protect the integrity of nonimmigrant programs. It is difficult to see how the proposed rule’s two- or four-year checkpoints will yield better or more up-to-date information that would justify the easily foreseen uncertainty and disruption.

Once fully implemented, DHS estimates that USCIS would be required to review an additional 364,060 extension requests each year. With this increase in workload, and based on the persistent backlogs that currently plague all nonimmigrant petitions, international students and scholars would be in administrative limbo for many months, affecting their ability to access time-limited experiential training opportunities through OPT and CPT. More concerning, students and scholars, and their host universities or hospitals, would have to grapple with the possibility that their applications could be denied. In that case, they would have to depart the United States, in some cases immediately, presumably at risk of detention and removal if the authorized admission period has expired. They would leave their studies unfinished, their contributions to research, including projects sponsored by federal science agencies, at an end, and their training programs incomplete. For many of these international students and scholars, the extension process would be a regularly recurring concern, making it a decisive factor in choosing a college, university, or hospital in the United States—or in one of our competitor nations.

The proposed rule would jeopardize academic and training programs of national—and global—significance, including the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s highly regarded initiative to end the AIDS epidemic in Africa. This collaborative research and training program, operated in partnership with federal agencies and other nonprofits, brings scholars to Boston for training in HIV/AIDS research, clinical trials, and education, which supports progress in the participating countries as well as the urban and rural areas of the United States that are heavily burdened by the disease. The rule also threatens graduate-level public health programs that attract students from around the world, including Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Central and South America, with concentrations in epidemiology, biostatistics, and environmental health, all of which support our global health security. Similarly, the Harvard Medical School supports new and established initiatives that foster research collaboration and medical innovation, including in Israel, the Middle East, and Vietnam, which rely on international exchange and advanced training by a global network of experts, all of which could be at risk under the proposed rule. The Harvard Medical School also educates and graduates physicians, many of whom choose to transition from student to scholar visas to complete their three-to-five-year residency at teaching hospitals across the country, where they provide supervised health care to patients. Without visa certainty, there will be fewer medical professionals to serve US communities, especially those urban and rural areas that have long struggled to provide stable, accessible, and quality health care.

The proposed rule would undermine the many programs that rely on the presence and diversity of international students to provide a richer educational experience for all, including programs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard Law School, which enroll international students to provide different perspectives on issues of governance and policy, law, and justice. And it would cripple PhD programs, especially in STEM fields, where international students are more likely to obtain advanced degrees. The participation of these graduate-level international students and scholars allows colleges and universities to support a wide range of academic offerings, benefitting all students. To rebuild and strengthen our US research enterprise, and to remain on the cutting edge of science and innovation, US colleges and universities need to be able to attract the world’s most promising students and scholars to fill advanced degree and training programs and support the education and training of undergraduates—something that will not be possible if the proposed rule’s “national interest” criterion is used to further limit participation in certain fields of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering.

If enacted, this proposed rule would represent the latest in a series of policies and orders to bar or otherwise restrict visas to nonimmigrants, directed particularly at students, scholars, and highly skilled workers—a list that includes the reckless policy to prohibit international students from studying online during a public health emergency. As I have written to DHS leadership on more than one occasion, higher education in America is great because we recruit the world’s best. While at US colleges and universities, these students, scholars, and faculty produce exceptional work in science, art, and medicine. Some, including four of the eight US Nobel Laureates in 2019, will legally immigrate, collaborate with other researchers, and teach and advise thousands of students at colleges and universities across the country, contributing to and preserving our position as the world’s preeminent center for innovation and discovery. Others will return home, carrying with them a better understanding of our nation’s values and traditions in fields like medicine, government, and law, concluding a cultural exchange that accrues to the benefit of people everywhere.

In all cases, international students and scholars are accepted into programs at Harvard and peer institutions because they represent the best. If they decide not to enroll, US higher education will see a decrease in the quality of its programs and the progress of its research programs relative to other competitor nations. Although the United States long has been the top destination for international students, scholars, and faculty, continued preeminence is not assured, as evidenced by near 11 percent decline in international student enrollment since 2016. As the nation struggles with its COVID-19 response and a changed political environment, further deceleration is expected, with some projecting new enrollments to reach their lowest levels since the end of World War II. Not only would this proposed rule hinder the recovery of the nation’s scientific and educational infrastructure, it would undermine a chief export of the United States. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, more than one million international students attended US colleges and universities in 2018, generating more than $40 billion in export revenue—a value almost double the revenue from one of America’s top agricultural exports, soybeans.

The post COVID-19 environment will be a critical turning point for international education and the global engagement of US colleges and universities. We need well-crafted, forward-looking immigration and visa policies to help win back international students and scholars and to avoid lasting damage to our national competitiveness, security, and prosperity. To remedy this indifference to the many contributions that international students and scholars make to this nation, I join with the leaders of science, medicine, and industry in urging you to immediately withdraw this unnecessary and injurious proposal.


Lawrence S. Bacow