Lawrence Bacow, the president of the USA’s oldest university, Harvard, has urged President elect, Joe Biden, to prioritize US immigration reform for international students. In recent months, the Trump administration has attempted to restrict US F1 and M1 student visas amid the COVID-19 pandemic, sparking legal challenges from Harvard and other universities.
Bacow has called on Biden to make US visa processing ‘streamlined and predictable.’ Upon congratulating Biden for his election win, the Harvard president turned his attention to the US immigration system saying: ‘it doesn’t do nearly enough to encourage the legitimate flow of people and ideas or recognize the contribution immigrants make to America.’
With many US consulates around the world now resuming visa services, Bacow said: “Mr Biden, I encourage you to prioritize the consideration of international students and scholars, and ensure that US visa processing is streamlined and predictable, with a reasonable timeframe for adjudication.”
Student and Exchange Visitor Program
Harvard’s president also urged Biden to ‘act without delay’ to clarify that foreign students under the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) will be able to maintain their US 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”.
Under current immigration rules, international students enrolling on US university courses purely online are prohibited from entering the US. United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has recommended that this rule remain in place having been introduced in March amid rising coronavirus cases across America.
A spokesperson for ICE told PIE News: “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.”
“The March 2020 guidance applies to non-immigrant students who were actively enrolled at a US school on March 9, 2020, and are otherwise complying with the terms of their non-immigrant status, whether from inside the United States or abroad,” the spokesperson added.
COVID rates may rise
However, Bacow has warned that COVID rates are likely to increase further in the New Year, while many colleges and universities will have to continue to accommodate remote learning and research for the spring semester.
Bacow said that clear guidance is needed for SEVP students on hybrid programs and an extension of immigration flexibilities is needed for the duration of the pandemic. The Harvard president argued that this will ‘allow schools to assign top priority to the safety of their communities while minimizing course disruptions, especially for those outside the US.’
According to Bacow, failure to act on US immigration reforms would ‘maintain a shadow of uncertainty’ that has contributed to the slump in new international student enrolments.
Bacow said: “The ‘stay rate’ for students from China and India, who represent the two largest source countries for US science and engineering doctorate recipients, has dropped since those students now choose opportunities at home or elsewhere in the face of uncertainty in the US.”
The president of Harvard added that he was pleased to hear Biden’s plans to overturn the US visa Muslim ban, while encouraging the incoming administration to carefully review other such entry bans.
Earlier this year, Harvard filed a joint lawsuit with MIT opposing an announcement made by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposing plans to ban all international students from studying fully online courses while still in the US.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Bacow has continued to back international students by writing to members of the Harvard community. Additionally, Bacow wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, urging them to implement ‘forward-thinking’ US immigration policies.
In a letter sent to Joe Biden, Bacow said: “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 US immigration policies.”
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