Harvard President Larry Bacow has urged President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to reverse a series of immigration restrictions imposed by the Trump administration over the past four years, arguing that the steady flow of talented immigrants to the United States — many coming to study at a college or university — historically has been a key ingredient of the nation’s innovation economy.
In a letter sent Monday congratulating Biden on his election victory, Bacow wrote in support of the incoming administration’s plans to rescind the ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries, reinstate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, otherwise known as DACA, and reissue Temporary Protected Status for people from countries experiencing war or natural disasters.
“Until we are able to achieve a more permanent solution, protections will be necessary to ensure that these individuals do not lose the right to live and work in the United States, including many at Harvard,” wrote Bacow.
Citing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Harvard’s president also asked Biden to instruct the Student Exchange Visa Program to resume granting entry to international students and to ensure that those currently enrolled in full-time distance learning will maintain their status. To secure a U.S. visa, international students normally need to be enrolled full-time in in-person classes. The Trump administration temporarily waived that requirement when many institutions shifted to online instruction in March, but attempted to reimpose it in the summer, only to back down in the face of lawsuits by Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other colleges and universities. And many international students newly enrolled in the fall have had to continue to study from far-flung time zones due to an inability to secure visas to travel to the U.S.
“Nearly every country in the world admits immigrants, but the United States has long been defined by the immigrant origins of many of our citizens. Throughout our history, waves of immigrants have come here and made this country their home. With energy, talent, and determination, immigrants have helped make our nation, economy, and communities stronger and more prosperous,” Bacow wrote. Higher education, he noted, has brought many immigrants to the U.S., where they have thrived and contributed to society and the economy.
Bacow’s letter came on a historic day as hundreds of electors met in state capitals across the country to cast their ballots for president, giving Biden a total of 306 electoral votes, 36 more than the 270 needed to win. The Electoral College’s vote represented another important step in confirming Biden’s status as president-elect, an outcome President Trump and many of his allies continue to contest. Also on Monday the first Americans began receiving the vaccine designed to protect them from COVID-19, as the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus surpassed 300,000.
The past nine months, Bacow wrote, have once again demonstrated the important role foreign-born people play, including on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic as doctors and nurses caring for the sick and as scientists researching treatments and vaccines. He specifically cited the contributions of Noubar Afeyan, the chairman of Moderna, the Cambridge biotechnology company that has developed one of the leading potential vaccines. A native of Beirut, Afeyan earned his Ph.D. at MIT and is now a U.S. citizen.
“Although his contribution is exceptional, Afeyan’s story is not unique,” Bacow said. “The National Science Board estimates that as many as 50 percent of United States Ph.D. holders in the high-demand fields of science and engineering were born abroad. Additionally, more than a third — 37 percent — of U.S. scientists who received Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics, and medicine since 2000 were immigrants, as well as five of Harvard’s 13 prize winners since 1998.
“To remain a world leader,” Harvard’s president concluded, “the U.S. and its colleges and universities must be open to ensure that we do not become isolated from the discourse that occurs outside of our borders. 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 U.S. 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.”
Maureen Martin, director of Immigration Services for Harvard’s International Office, said she welcomed Bacow’s continued support on such an important topic.
“As soon as I saw the letter, I forwarded it to our staff because it’s been such a tough year, and something like this really just makes everybody in the office so grateful that President Bacow takes such an interest in the immigration realm,” said Martin, whose office provides a range of services for more than 10,000 Harvard-affiliated international students and scholars. “The last four years have been a real grind, and we are looking forward to turning the page here. I think we all fear President Biden is going to have a lot on his plate, and we are hopeful that people like President Bacow can help by showing what we think the priorities should be.”
Roberto Gonzales, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of the Immigration Initiative at Harvard, a University-wide effort to advance immigration research, said Bacow’s recommendations represent “a step in the right direction for a diverse set of immigrants on our campus.”
“These policies would provide immediate and sizable benefits. But, as we know, administrative policies like DACA and TPS are temporary and partial in nature. Ultimately, our students and staff members require more permanent solutions that only Congress can address,” said Gonzales, who hopes Bacow “will continue to use his platform and the resources of Harvard to urge members of Congress to enact legislation.”
Sabrineh Ardalan, who directs the Immigration and Refugee Clinic at Harvard Law School, also welcomed Bacow’s letter.
“The University’s continued advocacy on behalf of people with DACA and TPS is incredibly important,” said Ardalan. “It is critical that the Biden administration fully reinstate DACA and TPS and work with Congress to create a path to permanent residency and citizenship for DACA recipients and TPS holders.”
The son of immigrants, Bacow has long signaled his support for “forward-looking immigration policies,” and for protecting undocumented students. In July 2019, he met with lawmakers in the nation’s capital to discuss a range of issues affecting higher education, including federal immigration policy. That same month he sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan urging them to expedite the visa and immigration process for foreign students and researchers.
This past June, Bacow welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to uphold DACA. In a letter to the Harvard community he praised the court’s ruling, writing that he hoped that “rather than reflexively closing our borders to immigrants, and to nonimmigrants who wish to pursue educational opportunities in America, we can once again live up to our promise as a nation that welcomes those who seek a better life for themselves and their children — people who have traditionally contributed much to the fabric and greatness of our country.”
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