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‘Unnecessary and Injurious:’ Harvard President Bacow Condemns DHS Proposal

Massachusetts Hall houses the Office of the President.
Massachusetts Hall houses the Office of the President. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Camille G. Caldera and Kevin A. Simauchi, Crimson Staff Writers

University President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote that Harvard “strenuously opposes” a proposed rule from the Department of Homeland Security to limit the length of stay permitted on international student visas.

“This is an inappropriate intrusion into academic matters, and it is unwarranted,” Bacow wrote in a letter to DHS Acting Regulatory Unit Chief Sharon Hageman on Friday.

Currently, visas are valid for the duration of time a student is enrolled in an accredited institution. If the new rule is enacted, it will set fixed four year terms for international student visas, after which students must apply for a new visa or a two year extension.

The proposal, announced in the Federal Register on Sept. 25, is open for feedback until Oct. 26. DHS has already received over 20,000 comments — though it is not guaranteed to change the final rule.

In his letter, Bacow wrote that just 86 percent of undergraduates receive their degrees within 4 years, while most graduate and professional-level degree programs consist of “five to seven years of advanced coursework and independent scholarship or training.”

As a result, the University “conservatively” estimates that the four year term limit would affect more than 1,300 Ph.D. candidates and 140 doctoral candidates at Harvard, per Bacow.

“By casting a wide net and arbitrarily bounding international students and scholars, the proposed rule would create negative and cascading consequences for US research, scholarship, and training; weaken our national recovery and future competitiveness; and undermine our national response to global challenges in science, security, and public health,” Bacow wrote.

The proposed rule further limits international students from certain countries — those listed as state sponsors of terrorism or those with student visa overstay rates exceeding 10 percent — to terms of just two years.

Bacow wrote that overstay rates do not “adequately justify this overbroad and discriminatory treatment based on national origin,” which he estimated will impact more than 300 students and scholars at Harvard.

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.

The letter from Bacow is the latest in a series of critiques of the proposed change from administrators at the University. In an interview last week, Vice Provost for International Affairs Mark C. Elliott said that “the proposed notice seeks to fix a problem that doesn't exist.”

DHS Senior Official Kenneth T. Cuccinelli justified the proposed change as “critical in improving program oversight mechanisms, preventing foreign adversaries from exploiting the country’s education environment” in a press release last month.

The Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers also circulated a petition that called on Harvard’s International Office to take a more aggressive approach in addressing the proposed rule.

On Oct. 9, Harvard administrators facilitated a meeting between international students and Bradley E. Abruzzi, a staff attorney from the Office of General Counsel. Abruzzi could not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Aayush Khadka, an organizer with the HGSU-UAW, said that the meeting was helpful, despite uncertainty surrounding the final text of the proposed rule change.

“The HIO information session was quite helpful,” Khadka wrote in a message to The Crimson. “The panelists very clearly explained the possible ramifications of the rule and outlined the steps that Harvard is taking to ensure that the rule is not finalized — at least in its current form.”

Khadka is from Nepal, one of the countries listed under the proposed ruling as having a visa overstay rate of greater than 10 percent.

In his letter Friday, Bacow concluded that the rule would deter future international students from coming to live, work, and study in the United States, adding that it would be an intellectual and economic loss for the nation.

“We need well-crafted, forward-looking immigration and visa policies to help win back international students and scholars and to avoid lasting damage to our national competitiveness, security, and prosperity,” Bacow wrote. “To remedy this indifference to the many contributions that international students and scholars make to this nation, I join with the leaders of science, medicine, and industry in urging you to immediately withdraw this unnecessary and injurious proposal.”

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at camille.caldera@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

—Staff writer Kevin A. Simauchi can be reached at kevin.simauchi@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Simauchi.

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