international student
Harvard University president has asked US ICE for flexibilities when dealing with international enrolments. Source: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images/AFP

Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow has urged government officials to ease the international student return to the US, hitting back at the “hurdles” put in place by the former administration. He detailed his pleas in a letter to Tracy Renaud, acting director of the US  Citizenship and Immigration Services (ICE).

In this letter, he wrote, “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.”

“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,” he continued. “As a result, a shadow of uncertainty has been cast over immigrants and non-immigrants alike — and it has taken a toll in higher education.”

international student

Harvard University President Bracow has been vocal about international student matters. Source: Paul Marotta/Getty Images/AFP

Tackling international student visa backlog

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sued the Trump government back in July 2020. This was after ICE announced that the State Department would not issue visas to students enrolled in programmes that are fully online for the fall semester. This limited international student enrolment in US universities. It also threatened the status of existing students who had their course move online during the pandemic.

Though the order has since been rescinded, the universities pushed back at the time, calling the move “arbitrary and capricious”. “It appears that it was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors and others,” Bacow said at the time. Harvard maintained that all its classes for the 2020-21 academic year will be conducted online “with rare exceptions.”

Today’s Biden administration takes a more positive view on immigration — especially that of international students — yet the visa processing backlog is still a cause for worry among university hopefuls. Many US embassies and consulates have yet to resume regular visa processing since the pandemic broke out, causing stakeholders to worry that international students will not make it back to US universities for the fall semester.

Earlier this month, 17 presidents and chancellors of universities throughout New York urged the US government to take a series of immediate actions that will allow greater numbers of international students to return to US universities for the fall 2021 semester. They called for the reopening of US embassies and consulates to process student visas and facilitate visa appointments.