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'Harvard Has Suffered,' Chief Officer for International Affairs Says of Visa Troubles for International Students

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Vice Provost for International Affairs Mark C. Elliott denounced a recent U.S. Department of Homeland Security rule that would reduce how much time international students can spend inside the United States in an interview Thursday.

DHS issued their rule on Sept. 25. It mandates “a fixed period of stay for international students,” citing the need to “reduce fraud and enhance national security.”

Organizers for the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers rebuked the rule and called on Elliott to take action against the policy in a publicly circulated petition.

Elliott denounced the DHS notice in the interview Thursday, saying that it “seeks to fix a problem that doesn't exist.”

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“This is one of those classic cases where, you know, nothing is really broken here, [the] system is working fine,” Elliott said.

A spokesperson for DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In response to student backlash, Elliott said he communicated extensively with union organizers, agreeing to meet their request for an information session with a lawyer from the University’s Office of the General Counsel.

“We had that information session last Friday — about 500 international students attended — including representatives of the Graduate Student Union, which we were very pleased to see,” Elliott said. “We had a lawyer from the office on general counsel explain how the comment process works and the more comments, the better, and that everybody, whether you are a U.S. citizen or not, you are entitled to make a comment on a proposed change like this.”

Aayush Khadka and Francesca Bellei, both HGSU-UAW organizers who originally circulated the petition to Elliott and his office, did not respond to a request for comment.

Elliott also discussed the University’s efforts to lobby Congress for more student visa protections, referring to University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s call with lawmakers in late September. He said the University’s Federal Relations Office has been in communication with other higher education interest groups like the American Council on Education and the American Association of Universities.

“As President Bacow has said, if that means sometimes that he gets on the phone and calls the Secretary of State to make Harvard’s position known, he will do that,” Elliott noted. “I don’t see us shifting from that role, the President has made that clear.”

Many Trump administration officials have long sought to restrict immigration. In one high-profile case last year, federal officials deported a Harvard freshman after finding allegedly anti-American social media posts on the student’s feed; the student eventually made it to campus.

Elliott said that Trump’s pursuit of more restrictive visa policies is “not something that started with the pandemic.”

“I think this is the result, and we see this in a variety of ways, of a fundamental policy position on part of the Trump administration that is opposed to immigration, really of any kind,” Elliott said. “That kind of an anti-immigration platform is one that the administration has advanced very aggressively and our international students and scholars have suffered, and Harvard has suffered, and all of American Higher Education has suffered.”

Elliott could not provide any insight on international students' prospects of returning to campus for the spring semester, saying that the decision to bring more students back still remains uncertain and is left up to each individual school.

Still, Elliott expressed his commitment to improving the remote experience for international students.

“This is on everybody’s mind, I can guarantee you that,” Elliott said. “We understand that there are places where we might be able to do better and certainly that’s the goal that every school is to do the best we possibly can and address the needs of international students which, again, in some cases you pointed out, are really quite acute.”

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

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