The Honorable Tracy L. Renaud
Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Director
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services
United States Department of Homeland Security
Washington, DC 20528
Re: Docket USCIS-2021-0004
Dear Ms. Renaud:
I am appreciative of this opportunity to share with you some preliminary thoughts on the Request for Public Input on Identifying Barriers Across US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Benefits and Services. With time very short on this request, the University will follow up in coming weeks with a supplemental comment providing additional specifics and data as requested in the notice, as these issues are critical on my campus and others across the country. I recognize some of these comments may fall beyond the jurisdiction of USCIS and the Department of Homeland Security; however, the system that supports the participation of international and other non-US citizen in post-secondary education is complicated and is shared between DHS, the Department of State, and occasionally other agencies, so I hope the comments in these areas will be helpful to your process.
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, in the last administration, executive orders and presidential proclamations 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 in higher education. 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, 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.
An immediate concern is the significant backlog of international students and scholars awaiting visas overseas. In recent weeks, the State Department has announced, as consulates reopen, students and scholars will be given priority for processing (after US citizens and emergency requests). As part of that effort, USCIS should work within DHS to ease the return to campus, including arrival at US ports of entry. I also encourage you to review the COVID-related travel restrictions on certain countries, including China, Brazil, and South Africa, and, working with the Departments of State and Health and Human Services, consider issuing a new national interest determination covering students and scholars, similar to the policy for the Schengen Area, UK, and Ireland, thereby helping to ensure that greater numbers of students, faculty, and staff are able to return to campus to conduct on-campus research and to resume their academic programs.
I also direct your attention to the Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) and urge you to renew and extend the current flexibilities to allow for alternate, adjusted, or hybrid scheduling for those who will be unable to obtain visa appointments in time for the fall term. Throughout the last academic year, many colleges and universities have relied on remote learning and research to continue the academic work of students and faculty. SEVP has provided some flexibility and guidance to clarify that continuing students will be able to maintain their status by enrolling in a full-time course of study through distance learning. This guidance should be available for continuing students and extended to new students for the duration of the pandemic, especially given the news from the Department of State of a significant, four-month backlog in visa processing. Such a policy will allow schools to minimize disruptions for students, especially those outside of the US who have persevered with unreliable or restricted internet and dramatically different time zones. Going forward, I hope you will consider, on a permanent basis, providing new flexibility for colleges and universities to offer international students opportunities to engage education programs that are low residency or hybrid, which would allow us to extend the reach of our programs to more students, including in nationally important areas such as environmental studies and public health.
More specific to USCIS, I agree that it is critically important to get the system back on track, rescinding policies and practices that have burdened legitimate case processing. In general, I hope you will consider restoring the “deference” policy, which would allow an adjudicator to rely on findings in previously approved cases involving the same parties and facts, increase transparency on case processing times and backlogs, and review the increase in requests for evidence, or challenges to H-1B petitions, a burdensome and expensive process that, in many cases, appears to suggest that specialty occupations cannot be entry level, something that is contradicted by the young physicians, scholars, and researchers who are employed by Harvard and its affiliated hospitals. I also hope you will review the overall efficiency of the processing of work authorization and preserve experiential learning opportunities, such as Optional Practical Training (OPT). Specifically, I urge you to consider revising current regulations to allow international students to apply for their work authorization earlier, given that they currently are unable to apply more than 90 days from their proposed start date and processing delays have become more routine, often exceeding the 90-day limit. Finally, I hope you will do more to ensure that the mandatory minimums in our prevailing wage system for H-1B visa holders reflect college and university salaries in our geographic region—and are not inappropriately inflated by industry or by other political considerations.
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. With all that is in the balance in terms of US competitiveness, innovation, and national security, I applaud this important initiative and hope these initial recommendations are helpful. The University will be providing further information in the coming weeks, and I look forward to being of assistance in this effort.
Lawrence S. Bacow