After a legal victory over the summer, University President Lawrence S. Bacow dialed into Capitol Hill to continue to advocate for more lenient visa policies for international students who are forced to take online courses amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
In an interview with The Crimson on Friday, he said he had spoken with one Representative and three Senators in the past week — all via phone or Zoom.
“What I've been working on most recently is trying to generate support for the amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that is offered by Representatives Pressley and Moulton of Massachusetts, which would ensure access to the United States for foreign students who seek to come study here, regardless of whether or not their institutions are providing in person instruction or online instruction,” Bacow said.
At the start of the pandemic, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement altered their policy to allow foreign students completing online-only coursework to remain in the country on their student visas. But in July, they rescinded the exception and declared only students taking some in-person courses could stay in the U.S.
In response, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit against the agencies. Days later, DHS and ICE reverted back the altered policy they had announced at the start of the pandemic, allowing international students already in the country to stay.
Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley (D-Mass.)and Rep. Seth W. Moulton ’01 (D-Mass.) put forth an amendment to codify that exception into law. They proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which provides annual funding and policies for the Department of Defense and contains some visa regulations.
Their amendment dictates that foreign students “may engage in online or distance education classes or programs that are determined necessary by an institution [...] for the protection of health and safety” through June 30, 2021, or 90 days after the end of the public health crisis, whichever is later.
It also mandates that online courses “shall count towards the requirement to pursue a full course of study” — a requirement for students to retain their visas.
The House of Representatives moved to include their amendment on July 21. Later that day, the House voted 295-125 to pass its National Defense Authorization Act.
On July 23, the Senate voted 86-14 to pass its National Defense Authorization Act — though it lacked the amendment to protect international students.
Currently, the legislation is in “conference” — the process by which members of the House and Senate seek to resolve discrepancies between their versions of the law. Conference will likely not be complete before Election Day on Nov. 3, a member of the committee told Defense News.
After their amendment passed in the House, Pressley and Moulton released statements extolling its importance for international students.
Pressley said she was “relieved” the administration listened to public pressure and revoked a “bigoted policy.”
“This amendment will protect international students while allowing our higher education institutions to take the appropriate steps to keep their communities healthy and mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” she added.
Moulton said removing visas from international students studying at American schools was “xenophobic.”
“When international students can learn in America, many stay and bring their valuable perspectives, languages, and talents to institutions that protect our national security,” Moulton said in a statement in July. "I'm going to keep fighting so international students studying here can stay and worry about their classes, not about a president who wants to demonize them.”
University spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in an email to The Crimson earlier this month that Bacow has continued to take “an active role in advancing the University’s priorities at the federal level,” including “federal research funding, immigration, scientific research, and public health – including managing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the University’s response.”
—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.
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