Congratulating the 46th president of the US on his election result, president of Harvard University, Lawrence Bacow, said the present US immigration system “does not do nearly enough to encourage the legitimate flow of people and ideas or recognise the contributions that immigrants make to the US”.

“I encourage you to… ensure that visa processing is streamlined and predictable”

“As routine visa services resume at US consulates around the word, I encourage you to prioritise the consideration of international students and scholars, and ensure that visa processing is streamlined and predictable, with a reasonable timeframe for adjudication,” he said.

Bacow also called for Biden to “act without delay” to clarify that students on the Student and Exchange Visitor Program will be able to maintain their visa 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”.

Federal guidance for new or initial status international students enrolling on 100% online courses does not permit international students to enter the country to enrol in a US school.

The guidance was introduced in March as a result of the pandemic, and ICE is recommending that it should still be followed now, Inside Higher Ed confirmed recently.

“The guidance enables schools and students to engage in distance learning in excess of regulatory limits due to the public health emergency generated by Covid-19,” an ICE spokesperson told The PIE.

“The March 2020 guidance applies to nonimmigrant students who were actively enrolled at a US school on March 9, 2020, and are otherwise complying with the terms of their nonimmigrant status, whether from inside the United States or abroad.”

But Bacow warned, “As January approaches and Covid rates rise, many colleges and universities must continue to accommodate remote learning and research for the spring semester.”

Clear guidance for SEVP students on hybrid programs – and extending the flexibility for the span of the pandemic – will “allow schools to assign top priority to the safety of their communities while at the same time minimising disruptions to the academic progress of students”, especially those outside the US, who – Bacow noted – have persevered with unreliable or restricted internet and dramatically different time zones.

Failure to act could maintain a “shadow of uncertainty” that has aggravated new student enrolment declines, as well as a softening of doctoral degree graduates seeking to remain in the US after completing their studies.

“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,” Bacow wrote.

By attracting and developing talents of “extraordinary students and scholars”, US higher education has brought in new ideas and innovations “that have benefitted all of us”, he continued.

An example among the 50% of US PhD holders in high-demand fields of science and engineering born abroad is Lebanese-born cofounder and chairman of leading Covid vaccine candidate developer Moderna, Noubar Afeyan, Bacow highlighted.

The Harvard president is also “pleased to know” that the Biden administration intends to rescind the ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries, and encouraged the leadership to “carefully review and reconsider” other entry bans.

Lawrence Bacow has been Harvard University president since 2018. Photo: PRNewsFoto/Henry Schein, Inc.

“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,” he added.

He also urged the president-elect to reinstate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals for dreamers.

“It is my hope that you will be guided by our history, uplifted by our ideals, and inspired by the best among us”

“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,” he wrote.

Harvard filed a joint suit with MIT earlier this year in response to a Department of Homeland Security and ICE guidelines banning all international students from studying fully online courses while remaining in the  country.

Throughout the pandemic, Bacow has shown support for international students by writing to members of the Harvard Community, in addition to appealing to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf for “forward-looking” immigration policies.

“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,” Bacow concluded in the letter to president-elect Biden.

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