Letter from President Eisgruber to the U.S. Secretary of State and Secretary of Homeland Security Regarding J-1 Exchange Visas and the OPT Program

March 8, 2018

March 8, 2018

The Honorable Rex W. Tillerson
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20520

The Honorable Kirstjen M. Nielsen
Secretary of Homeland Security
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
3801 Nebraska Ave, NW
Washington, D.C. 20016

Dear Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Nielsen:

I am writing to express my deep concerns about upcoming actions being considered by your departments that could significantly impede the ability of American institutions of higher education to attract and retain motivated and skilled individuals from other countries.  As a world-class research and educational institution, Princeton University depends on the inflow of talented people who want to be a part of our undergraduate and graduate student bodies, our faculty, and our research staffs.  As such, I am particularly troubled by proposed changes to the J-1 exchange visa and Optional Practical Training (OPT) programs that could discourage many of those talented people from coming to the United States, or prevent them from staying in and making valuable contributions to our country.

Our nation’s leadership depends upon immigration: it grows our economy, creates jobs, and makes us more competitive in this interconnected world by allowing us to attract, welcome, and collaborate with extraordinary individuals from around the globe.  At Princeton, many of our most prominent scholars, students, and alumni have been—or are still—immigrants.  More than half of our recent Nobel Prize winners were born outside the United States.  We are proud of our Global Scholars Program, which enables us to recruit exceptional scholars from other nations and bring them to campus for multi-year teaching appointments.  This program has enabled our students to study under internationally recognized leaders in a wide range of disciplines, including neuroscience, Middle Eastern studies, and music.

America’s capacity to attract outstanding talent is, however, now being put at risk.  A recent National Science Foundation report[1] found that U.S. college enrollment of international students is down for the first time in many years.  In an increasingly globalized economy, it is vital that our students be knowledgeable about, and comfortable interacting with, people from many different cultures.  If we are to remain a world leader in research, innovation, and education, universities must be able to recruit the most qualified professors, students, and researchers from around the world.

At Princeton and many other universities, J-1 is the primary visa used to sponsor postdoctoral research associates and visiting faculty.  In these positions, J-1 recipients help educate our students and perform cutting-edge research in areas including genomics, neuroscience, and astrophysics.  While some foreign visitors are required to return home for a two-year period before seeking a more permanent visa in the United States, there are important exceptions that assist America’s efforts to attract and retain the talent it needs.  For example, the State Department has a “no-objection” waiver process; if the visitor’s home country issues a no‑objection letter regarding the two-year return, the State Department typically will issue a favorable waiver recommendation.  This process has been used by many of our J-1 recipients to pursue employment in the United States.  Often, faculty and scholars we recruit have received a no-objection waiver earlier in their careers.

Unfortunately, a proposed State Department rule would create a presumption against recommending waivers of the two-year home-country presence requirement for J-1 visa recipients who have a no-objection letter from their home country.  If these waivers become limited or more burdensome to obtain, that change could undermine higher education’s ability to hire international faculty members or scholars.  Indeed, researchers may forgo coming to the U.S. altogether.

I am also concerned about the Department of Homeland Security’s potential changes to the OPT program and the two-year extension that is available for certain Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math students (STEM OPT).  By permitting international students studying in the U.S. to apply for “practical training” with a U.S. employer in a job directly related to their course of study, OPT allows students to supplement their educations with valuable experiential learning and on-the-job training as they start their careers.  Princeton students have used OPT to train in children’s hospitals, work at nonprofit organizations, create new products at startup companies, and engage in many other activities that grow our economy.  Changes that limit or constrain these training programs would not only diminish America’s ability to retain talented students educated in the United States, they would also damage our ability to attract these students here at all.

Immigration is an essential part of the American story, and many who have come to the U.S. from other countries have played a critical role in our nation’s success.  Attracting the best talent, regardless of national origin, is essential to maintaining America’s status as the global leader in scholarship and research.  As you consider these and other proposals, I urge you to think deeply about the long-term consequences—intentional or otherwise—that could result from policies that discourage foreign students and world-class experts from pursuing education and employment in the United States.

Christopher L. Eisgruber


[1]  National Science Board. 2018. Science and Engineering Indicators 2018. NSB-2018-1. Alexandria, VA: National Science Foundation. Available at https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/indicators/.