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Letter: Need for forward-looking immigration policies to protect international students and scholars

The Honorable Michael Pompeo
Secretary of State
United States Department of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC  20520

The Honorable Chad Wolf
Acting Secretary
United States Department of Homeland Security
300 7th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Secretary Pompeo and Acting Secretary Wolf:

         As the country takes its first steps toward recovery, I write to express the urgent need for the Administration to incorporate forward-looking immigration policies—including for international students, faculty, and researchers—into its national strategy to reopen and revitalize the United States economy. Harvard and our peers in higher education are actively considering scenarios for research, teaching, and instruction to continue and resume on campus, and we are eager to work with you to ensure that the United States continues to lead in research and innovation. As such, I hope the Administration will reconsider any plan to suspend or restrict nonimmigrant visas and their work authorizations, including for international students, scholars, and specialized workers.

         Specifically, I urge you to reject efforts to curtail Optional Practical Training (OPT) and the STEM extension, programs that allow international students at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels to participate in time-limited training experiences related to their fields of study, similar to internship, training, and preparatory opportunities. Experiential learning is an important practical experience as well as a recruitment tool for those seeking to welcome top talent. This is especially true for international students in STEM fields, particularly in leading graduate-level programs in fields like engineering, computer and information sciences, mathematics, and statistics. OPT also is vital to the health care system, as many top medical schools use OPT to support first-year residency programs for new physicians.

         Like many leading research universities, Harvard seeks to attract the very best students, researchers, and faculty from across the globe. They are an essential part of the daily life of the university. They enrich teaching and learning, and they advance science and scholarship. They are part of our shared future. In fact, many of the Harvard faculty leading the COVID-19 response, including in diagnostics and therapeutics, were once international students at US colleges and universities. And their collaborators at other Boston-area universities, hospitals, and biotech industries include those who came from overseas—and stayed to contribute.

         At a time when there is greater international competition for top students and consecutive years of declining new enrollments at colleges and universities in the United States, the loss of OPT threatens to erode our ability to enroll the best and brightest. Similar and competitive programs exist in many other countries, and we risk losing out. While I recognize the need to protect OPT students and US workers alike, especially during an economic recovery, I believe we can rely on the program mechanisms such as employer attestations and commensurate terms and conditions, thereby avoiding inadvertent harm to economic growth and cultural exchange.

         Looking ahead, it will be essential for international scholars and students to return to US institutions, where they contribute greatly both to our communities and local economies—as much as $41 billion in 2018. I urge you to develop a plan to resume visa processing and to work with higher education on appropriate ways to address any backlogs for international scholars and students by streamlining processes, such as by waiving in-person interviews where appropriate. As you consider new immigration policies and practices, I also strongly urge you to avoid any blunt measures that seek to exclude international scholars and students based on national origin. Not only do these policies threaten to undermine our national ideals and core institutional values of openness and inclusivity, they threaten to cut off the United States from the global scientific community in critical fields of science and scholarship. I hope we can focus instead on safeguarding the US enterprise by working with colleges and universities to strengthen research integrity, with a renewed focus on transparency and reciprocity.

         Finally, I want to express my appreciation for the quick action to allow international students to maintain their visa status this last spring as Harvard and others transitioned to online platforms to slow the spread of COVID-19 without worrying that our international students would fall out of status or experience further disruptions in their academic progress. The continuation of this policy will be important for the fall as we continue to respond to local public health conditions, and I urge you to expand flexibility to include new or initial-status students, as well as continuing and transfer students.

         In light of national needs related to public health and economic competitiveness, and as part of the broad conversation to safely reopen the United States economy, I hope you will prioritize these concerns in your agencies’ work and advocate for the support and flexibility needed by our premier higher education sector so these institutions—as well as their faculty, staff, and students—can continue to contribute in full measure to the nation’s health, well-being, and prosperity.


Lawrence S. Bacow