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Bacow Calls for Visa Flexibility, Increased Access for International Students

In a letter to U.S. immigration authorities Monday, University President Lawrence S. Bacow advocated for permanent changes to ease the visa process for international students.
In a letter to U.S. immigration authorities Monday, University President Lawrence S. Bacow advocated for permanent changes to ease the visa process for international students. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Jasper G. Goodman and Kelsey J. Griffin, Crimson Staff Writers

University President Lawrence S. Bacow urged U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to “ease the return to campus” for international students by permanently increasing visa flexibility in a letter sent Monday.

Under a Trump administration rule, international students requiring F-1 sponsorship were unable to enter the U.S. if their courses were fully remote, leaving Harvard’s first-year international students scattered around the globe.

As consulates reopen and students prepare to return to in-person learning this fall, a backlog of scholars awaiting visas now foreshadows administrative delays.

In the letter, Bacow asked Tracy L. Renaud, acting director of USCIS, to “renew and extend the current flexibilities” to the Student Exchange Visitor Program in order to allow international students to obtain visas to attend schools that plan to continue limiting in-person learning.

“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,” Bacow wrote.

He also called for the agency, which is housed within the Department of Homeland Security, to restore its “deference policy,” which previously allowed USCIS evaluators to defer to previous eligibility determinations while reviewing visa petitions.

The letter also urges USCIS to revise work authorization requirements to ensure the mandatory minimum wage reflects the salaries offered by colleges and universities, and to allow students to apply for work authorization earlier. Students currently must apply and gain authorization within 90 days of their start date — which Bacow claimed processing delays have made difficult to achieve.

Bacow’s letter was in response to a request for public comment issued by the Biden administration on how to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of federal immigration processes.

USCIS did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Bacow, who publicly clashed with the Trump administration over immigration issues, wrote that executive actions by Trump “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,” he added.

Bacow cited a recent report released by the Department of State and Institute of International Education that found last year marked the first “year-over-year decline” in the total enrollment of international students nationwide since 2005.

“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,” he wrote.

“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 added.

—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.

—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.

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