MIT on Thursday alerted its faculty and administrators that they should expect visits from federal immigration officials to check the status of foreign postdoctoral students, researchers, and visiting scholars working in the sciences, and urged them to cooperate with authorities.
The memo, which was sent faculty-wide, comes at the time of increased anxiety on campuses about foreign scientists and scholars, and it took some at MIT by surprise.
MIT officials said the memo was aimed at educating the faculty about the potential visits and that they will be sharing similar information with the foreign scholars. But MIT stressed it remains committed to engaging with scholars from across the world.
“MIT has been clear about the value of our global community and of the free flow of scientific ideas,” Kimberly Allen, a spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We are grateful for the dedication, imagination, and perseverance of every scholar here at MIT.”
The two-page memo was sent by Penny Rosser, director of MIT’s international scholars office, under the heading “Potential Homeland Security Site Visits.”
The Department of Homeland Security and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit have started visiting “employers of F-1 post-graduate students,” the memo begins, referring to academic visas held by many foreign students.
Rosser told faculty and administrators that federal officials are likely to give them 48 hours’ notice, but that may not always be the case. MIT notified employees that immigration officials will probably want to make sure that student-visa documentation is up to date, but agents could also ask to see worksites, including laboratories, and may ask about how the university decided on a foreign student’s salary.
The purpose of a site visit “is to confirm that the employer has sufficient resources and supervisory personnel to effectively provide the training, and that the foreign national is appropriately engaged in that activity,” Rosser wrote.
Site visits target graduate students in science, engineering, and technology who are temporarily employed or are doing optional training in their areas of study. Usually, students complete such training soon before or immediately after earning their degrees. For foreign students, it can be a good way to return home with US work experience on their resumes.
Immigration officials have been making inspection visits to small business and large corporations that hire such students since 2016, but they are increasing in frequency, ICE officials said. “The visits help ensure that students and employers are engaged in work-based learning experiences,” said Carissa Cutrell, a spokeswoman.
Cutrell declined to comment on whether the government has found violations during such visits or taken action against employers or foreign nationals.
Colleges and universities, which have long been open to global cooperation, have been on high alert in recent years as the government cracks down on immigration violations, potential espionage, and theft of scientific work.
Last month, federal authorities charged Zaosong Zheng, 29, a Chinese cancer researcher who was studying in the United States on a Harvard-sponsored visa, with making false statements. They allege Zheng tried to go to China with smuggled vials of research specimens that he stole from his lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
The FBI says Zheng was working for the Chinese government to steal intellectual property. Beth Israel, a Harvard teaching hospital, fired Zheng and the university has revoked his educational exchange visa.
In court documents, the FBI indicated Zheng may not have been the first to try to take research out of BIDMC.
University officials have said they, too, worry about national security, but some have raised concerns that the government may be hampering scientific breakthroughs, which usually happen when researchers across the globe work together.
Yossi Sheffi, director of MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics, said site visits seem innocuous and may be a good way to ensure that foreign students are treated fairly.
“One can interpret it as a good idea — checking that these people are not being exploited,” Sheffi said. “Alternatively, who knows?”