Problems Persist With U.S. Visas

To avoid red tape, will foreign students and scholars steer clear of the United States?

PHOTO: Michael R. Vella

Whenever he leaves the United States, whether to do research or on vacation, Zia Mian, a nuclear arms control expert at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School (Princeton, N.J.) has to depart from an airport or port designated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. After checking in, he gets fingerprinted. Within 30 to 40 days of his return, he is supposed to report to the nearest immigration office and get fingerprinted again. The security routine is required because Mian, although raised and educated in the UK, was born in Pakistan.

Mian is not alone, of course. The fingerprinting is part of a raft of new security measures imposed after 9/11 that affect the hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals who come to the United States each year to study, attend scholarly meetings, and conduct research. The measures include mandatory, in-person interviews with a U.S. consular officer prior to receiving or renewing a visa, and background checks for those studying topics deemed to pose a security risk, which includes many areas in the physical sciences, engineering, and computer science.

Additionally, all foreign students are now tracked in a federal database [see ”Keeping Track”]. All males over the age of 16 from 25 selected countries (countries the United States considers state sponsors of terrorism plus others with large Muslim populations) are now subject to an extra level of scrutiny, including being fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed by immigration officers.

Still being finalized is the so-called Interagency Panel on Advanced Science and Security, which will review selected visa applications of students and visiting scholars, with an eye toward preventing the sharing of any information that might be used to attack the United States.

At their extreme, the measures have led to troubling incidents in which students have been harassed or detained by immigration officials. Even day to day, though, the rules are proving onerous: at campuses throughout the country, students have had to delay their studies because they're unable to schedule consular interviews; students who'd left the United States for vacation or family emergencies have been denied re-entry; and invited speakers have been unable to obtain visas in time to give scheduled talks.

”The process must be improved or we will do very serious long-term damage to the U.S. scientific enterprise and to our image as an open, welcoming society,” says Norman Neureiter, a former Texas Instruments Inc. executive who in September completed a three-year stint as science advisor to the U.S. secretary of state. At a recent conference on U.S.-China relations, he said, ”Visa problems for students, researchers, and senior science officials were identified by the Chinese as the biggest problem in our very extensive science and technology relationship.”

Half of all U.S. graduate students in computer science and electrical engineering come from abroad, he notes. But many people are being turned off by the slowness and uncertainty of the visa process. ”Professors have told me they have lost graduate students or postdocs, who went to Europe instead. People are beginning to think of holding their meetings outside the United States,” he says.

The numbers bear him out: in fiscal year 2003, the U.S. State Department received about 24 percent, or 93 000, fewer applications for F-1 student visas than two years earlier, paralleling declines in other visa categories. Says Neureiter, ”Without foreign graduate students and postdocs, there will have to be a cutback in the research activity of American universities.”

Stagnating enrollments

The new rules are intended to close a security gap brought to light after 9/11, when it emerged that one of the19 hijackers had come to the United States on a student visa, and two others were posthumously granted student status months after the attacks. Since then, heightened security has become an uncomfortable but familiar facet of campus life across the United States.

”When foreign students want to take a vacation, we advise them to make sure they have evidence of their intent to continue their studies,” says Venkataramanan Balakrishnan, director of graduate admissions for the electrical and computer engineering department at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind. ”We give them documents, and we tell them to register for courses in advance.”

Despite such precautions, visa delays and denials persist. According to the Institute of International Education (New York City), the number of foreign students enrolled at U.S. colleges in 2002-2003 grew less than 1 percent, following five years in which the annual growth rate was 5 percent. Some countries' enrollments, particularly the Gulf states', dropped sharply, while other countries, including China, India, and South Korea, sent more students.

Meanwhile, countries that compete for foreign students, including Britain, Canada, and Australia, hope that the U.S. loss will be their gain. Canada's Alberta province, for example, is now expediting study permits for Chinese, Indian, and Vietnamese students, who also will be allowed to work there for an extra year after graduating. German universities, likewise, are developing international degree and certificate programs taught in English, the better to attract foreign students.

Such policies are already having an effect. From 2001 to 2002, Great Britain saw dramatic jumps in the number of students coming from China (up 71 percent) and India (55 percent), according to England's Higher Education Statistics Agency (Cheltenham, UK).

No chance to speak

Foreign researchers attending meetings in the United States have also been unpleasantly surprised by new visa rules. At last June's Design Automation Conference (DAC) in Anaheim, Calif., a major semiconductor industry gathering, a Turkish graduate student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne had been slated to speak, but was unable to get his business visa in time. The student's professor ended up taking his place.

The student applied for his visa two months before the meeting, which in most cases is sufficient, says Lee Wood, co-president of MP Associates Inc. (Boulder, Colo.), which manages DAC. But he made a mistake on his application, and his applying in a country in which he's not a citizen ”raised lots of red flags,” Wood says. ”I worry about a policy that makes it so difficult that honest people will simply choose not to attend events in the United States.”

As for Princeton's Zia Mian, so far the new rules have been ”relatively manageable,” he says. ”I know I have a fallback--the resources of the university and my colleagues and friends here. The real dilemma is for those who have problems with language or can't afford a lawyer. For them, bureaucracy can be pretty terrifying.”

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