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Letter to President-elect Biden

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Biden-Harris Transition
1401 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20230

Dear Mr. President-elect:

I am pleased to offer my warmest congratulations on your election as the 46th president of the United States. As we look ahead to the nation’s 245th year, it is my hope that you will be guided by our history, uplifted by our ideals, and inspired by the best among us, including those who were born elsewhere but who built their lives in the US.

Nearly every country in the world admits immigrants, but the United States has long been defined by the immigrant origins of many of our citizens. Throughout our history, waves of immigrants have come here and made this country their home. With energy, talent, and determination, immigrants have helped make our nation, economy, and communities stronger and more prosperous. Higher education has played an important role in this pipeline—identifying extraordinary students and scholars throughout the world, attracting them to the US, and developing their talents, which has resulted in new ideas and innovations that have benefitted all of us.

Yet, over the past four years, executive orders and presidential proclamations have barred entry to many, with others beset by processing delays, backlogs, and administrative hurdles designed to frustrate access to opportunities in this country. As a result, a shadow of uncertainty has been cast over immigrants and nonimmigrants alike—and it has taken a toll. Recently, the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange announced the fourth straight year of decline in new student enrollments, and the first year-over-year decline in total international student enrollments since 2005. Equally troubling, while the overwhelming majority of those who earn doctorate degrees at our colleges and universities choose to remain in the United States, the “stay rate” for students from China and India, who represent the two largest source countries for US science and engineering doctorate recipients, has softened as those students choose opportunities at home or elsewhere in the face of uncertainty here.

The United States has brought the world’s best students, researchers, and scholars together to enrich teaching and learning on college campuses, and they have also served on the front lines of the nation’s most complex challenges. Currently, many foreign-born health professionals, physicians, and students are leading the COVID response, providing clinical care, conducting research, and developing the safe and effective therapeutics that are key to our ability to reopen while protecting the vulnerable among us. One example is Noubar Afeyan, a Beirut national who earned his PhD at MIT and worked on an H-1B visa before he became a US citizen. Today, Afeyan is the cofounder and chairman of Moderna, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotechnology company that has developed one of the leading COVID vaccine candidates. Although his contribution is exceptional, Afeyan’s story is not unique. The National Science Board estimates that as many as 50 percent of United States PhD holders in the high-demand fields of science and engineering were born abroad. Additionally, more than a third—37 percent—of US scientists who received Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics, and medicine since 2000 were immigrants, as well as five of Harvard’s 13 prize winners since 1998.

As routine visa services resume at US consulates around the world, I encourage you to prioritize the consideration of international students and scholars, and ensure that visa processing is streamlined and predictable, with a reasonable timeframe for adjudication. I am pleased to know that you intend to rescind the ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries, and I encourage you to carefully review and reconsider these other entry bans, ensuring that they are constructive, time limited, and thoughtfully focused, with clear, expedited processes for the consideration of exemptions.

For the good of our communities and our country, I encourage you to take immediate steps to fully reinstate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and update the eligibility criteria to make the program accessible to all Dreamers even as we work with Congress to make these long-time members of our American family US citizens. Similarly, I hope you will review and reissue Temporary Protected Status as needed to individuals of countries that continue to experience conflict or crisis. Until we are able to achieve a more permanent solution, protections will be necessary to ensure that these individuals do not lose the right to live and work in the United States, including many at Harvard.

As January approaches and COVID rates rise, many colleges and universities must continue to accommodate remote learning and research for the spring semester. I hope you will act without delay in your first days in office to instruct the Student Exchange Visa Program to provide guidance clarifying that continuing students will be able to maintain their status by enrolling in a full-time course of study through distance learning and, most critically, extending that flexibility to new students for the duration of the pandemic. Such a policy will allow schools to assign top priority to the safety of their communities while at the same time minimizing disruptions to the academic progress of students, especially those outside of the United States who have persevered through the fall term with unreliable or restricted internet and dramatically different time zones. I also encourage you to remain alert to any efforts to replace or curtail the longstanding “duration of status” policy, which allows students to remain in the US for their full course of study or approved program. 

To remain a world leader, the US and its colleges and universities must be open to ensure that we do not become isolated from the discourse that occurs outside of our borders. Our present immigration system does not do nearly enough to encourage the legitimate flow of people and ideas or recognize the contributions that immigrants make to the US. The COVID pandemic has taught us that many of our most difficult challenges are global—and their solutions lie in international relationships and research collaborations that are established over time and enabled by flexible and accessible immigration policies. As you take office, I welcome your engagement with higher education leaders and other stakeholders. With all that is in the balance in terms of US competitiveness, innovation, and national security, I am certain you will find receptive and enthusiastic volunteers to assist in your efforts.

Again, congratulations on your election. Please do not hesitate to call me if I can be at all helpful to you.


Lawrence S. Bacow