University of Chicago Comment on DHS Proposal to Eliminate Duration of Status

UPDATE: Impact of Biden Administration Regulatory Freeze memorandum. When the Biden Administration issued its Regulatory Freeze memorandum on January 20, 2021, DHS had not yet sent a final duration of status rule to OMB for review or to the Office of the Federal Register for publication, paragraph 1 of the Regulatory Freeze memorandum would likely mean that no final rule could advance "until a department or agency head appointed or designated by the President after noon on January 20, 2021, reviews and approves the rule." OIA will continue to track this important issue and make updates as they become available.

University of Chicago Comment on DHS Proposal to Eliminate Duration of Status (submitted Oct 26, 2020)

We write to share the University of Chicago’s comments on and serious concerns with the Department of Homeland Security’s proposed rule titled “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,” released on September 25, 2020. The proposed rule, by placing needless burdens on international students, would damage the ability of the University of Chicago and other institutions of higher education to fulfill our highest aspirations in research, education, and impact, and would threaten to undermine America’s global leadership across academic disciplines. America’s position of strength depends on its ability to cultivate domestic talent and attract and retain the best and brightest people from around the world. For decades, the discoveries and contributions of international students, scholars, and researchers have made our country stronger, wealthier, and more successful. In fact, since 2000, 37 of the 100 Nobel prizes won by Americans in chemistry, physics, and medicine, including 5 at the University of Chicago, have been awarded to immigrants. International students have long sought to study in the United States; however, the current competition for global talent is growing and we risk falling behind other countries that offer a more welcoming environment.

Arbitrarily limiting the initial period international students are authorized to stay in the United States to two or four years, regardless of the length of their degree programs, would place an unwarranted burden on international students and may deter them from choosing to come to the United States to study. While some programs at the University of Chicago are normally two- or four-year programs, there are various compelling reasons why students in those programs may need additional time to complete their courses of study. In addition, the university has degree programs that by design take more than four years to complete. This includes the university’s over 75 doctoral programs that have a median time to degree that is closer to six years, and have collective enrollments of over 3,000 students. In the 2019-20 academic year, approximately 39% of the university’s over 3,000 doctoral students were international students, each of whom would be required to seek one or more extensions to complete their degree under the proposed rule.

The proposed rule also introduces tremendous uncertainty as to the circumstances under which international students would be able to complete their programs. For example, the determination of whether a student is making academic progress, and should therefore remain enrolled, is currently made by the educational institution, based on its assessment of the student’s performance in the program of study. Retaining this discretion is essential for higher education. The proposed rule, however, would effectively transfer judgments concerning academic progress to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officers. Moreover, the proposed rule does not provide any clear standards for USCIS officers to apply in making their evaluations. Talented international students faced with the added burden and uncertainty created by this proposed rule may decide to forgo study in the United States, which would be to the detriment of the higher education community and the country.

The proposed rule would also negatively impact students at all academic levels planning to apply for post-completion optional practical training (OPT) employment authorization, which is a valuable compliment to their academic studies. Eligible students apply for OPT by submitting an application and fee to USCIS. Requiring an extension application to be filed concurrently with an application for employment authorization would lead to further uncertainty, and increased costs and delays both for graduating students and the employers offering experiential learning opportunities.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) already has available to it a significant amount of information regarding international students, which should obviate the need to impose these new, significant burdens on international students and institutions of higher education. Currently, federal regulations require schools to report in real time over 100 data elements within the web-based reporting system known as the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). The required reporting includes enrollment status, U.S. address, program of study, program end-date, and practical training information. Enhanced usage of the data already available to DHS through the SEVIS system would be a more efficient and less burdensome regulatory alternative as compared with the new process called for by the proposed rule.

We are proud of the University of Chicago’s longstanding and ongoing commitment to welcoming international students and the talent and energy they bring to our university and our country. The University of Chicago strongly opposes the proposed rule, which would significantly interfere with our ability to maintain this commitment, and would diminish the intellectual community at our university and other institutions of higher education. Accordingly, we urge the Department of Homeland Security to withdraw this proposed rule.

Robert J. Zimmer, President

Ka Yee C. Lee, Provost