Columbia Expresses Strong Opposition to Homeland Security's Proposed Rule

October 26, 2020

Sharon Hageman
Acting Regulatory Unit Chief
Office of Policy and Planning U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
500 12th Street SW
Washington, D.C. 20536

Re: DHS Docket No. ICEB-2019-0006-0001, Comments in Response to Establishing a Fixed Time Period of Admission and an Extension of Stay Procedure for Nonimmigrant Academic Students, Exchange Visitors, and Representatives of Foreign Information Media

Dear Acting Regulatory Unit Chief Hageman,

On behalf of Columbia University in the City of New York, I write today in strong opposition to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (Department) proposed rule, “Establishing a Fixed Time Period of Admission and an Extension of Stay Procedure for Nonimmigrant Academic Students, Exchange Visitors, and Representatives of Foreign Information Media (DHS Docket No. ICEB-2019-0006-0001),” published September 25, 2020.

By replacing the current Duration of Status policy for international students and scholars with a fixed two-to-four-year term and an uncertain extension of stay process, the Department’s proposed rule would hinder our ability to recruit and retain the most talented students from around the world. This would harm not only our institution but diminish the strength of all U.S. universities, whose intellectual and research leadership depend on a broad and diverse talent base. We urge that the proposed rule be withdrawn in its entirety.

Columbia University has long been home to a thriving community of international students and scholars, and is currently among the top destinations in the U.S. for foreign-born students. In the fall of 2019, our total international student population exceeded 17,000 at the undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate levels, placing Columbia fourth among U.S. institutions in that regard. Representing 156 countries across the globe, these students contribute immeasurably to the intellectual and cultural richness of our campus community, fostering the innovation, dynamism, diversity, and openness that define the American research university. Federal policy should support this kind of international exchange by incentivizing cross-cultural collaboration. Instead, the financial and logistical barriers introduced by this proposed rule would threaten the leading role our institutions of higher education play in the world.

Our chief concern is the proposed change from the current Duration of Status policy for F international students and J exchange visitors to a fixed admission period of either two or four years. Significant numbers of our students routinely must exceed the four-year window to complete their programs of study. At the undergraduate level, changes of major, additional minors, and supplementary coursework are not only common but also among the reasons our institutions are attractive to foreign students. Requiring students to go through an expensive and
time-consuming extension of stay process with an uncertain outcome would discourage many from enrolling.

At the graduate level, the proposed fixed admission period introduces the extension of stay process as a requisite for the many students whose programs exceed four years by design, such as those in traditional Master’s/PhD sequences. Similarly, all J-1 research scholars who are permitted up to five years by the U.S. Department of State to complete their research would need to apply for at least one extension of stay during an initial J-1 period. The burden of the newly- required process would fall on international students seeking medical training at Columbia and other U.S. medical schools, as well as on foreign-born doctors participating in residencies and fellowships as J-1 exchange visitors, whose programs can last up to seven years depending upon their specialty. For these same reasons, the proposed rule also would also severely curtail the numbers of international scholars seeking postdoctoral research experience at U.S. institutions.

The proposed rule allows extensions of stay for “compelling academic reasons” but does not define that term, suggesting that USCIS could have more discretion over students’ academic standing than would their own university. At Columbia, as at other institutions, we have robust and effective policies regarding academic progress, with university offices and departments committed to evaluating student standing and carefully deciding whether to grant students additional time toward their degrees. The proposed rule would encroach upon academic decision-making, introducing USCIS into the relationships between students and their advisors at our institutions. Granting federal agents this authority would be an unprecedented overreach with serious implications for the principle of academic freedom, which is fundamental to the governance and operation of the American university.

The extension of stay application process would also impose significant strains on international students. Potential legal and filing fees would present hardships to many students. The time commitment and logistical challenges to filing are added deterrents; students would likely have to submit multiple extension of stay applications, often requiring complex and expensive travel to biometrics appointments. The required time and expense would present new barriers to recruiting and retaining international students.

Given how many students this would affect, potentially leading to hundreds of thousands of new applications per year, we are also concerned about the ability of USCIS to process these applications in a timely manner. In recent years, international students at Columbia and elsewhere have experienced significantly longer than normal USCIS processing times for visa applications and employment authorization applications such as Optional Practical Training. Increasing the applications submitted to USCIS at a time when the agency is handling a significant backlog and funding shortfalls would have a detrimental impact. This increased volatility and uncertainty of delayed approvals or adjudications would drive students from the country and discourage others from studying in the United States.

In light of these concerns, I strongly urge the Department to withdraw its proposed rule. We take very seriously the concerns about fraud and abuse raised in the Department’s proposal and, to the extent they are properly established, remain committed to working with the Department to address them within the framework of the existing SEVIS database system. But rather than imposing additional burdens and uncertainties on an already vulnerable and anxious community, the Department should strive to streamline the application and processing systems in order to reduce backlogs, and to curtail practices that unfairly target students from particular countries of origin. These measures and others will ensure the continuity of a thriving international community at Columbia and at campuses across the country.

Respectfully,

Ira Katznelson
Interim Provost
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History