New hurdles for international students
and scientists

Post-9/11 scrutiny leads to delays, rejections

Hundreds of students and scientists from other nations populate the halls of NCAR, other federal labs, and UCAR member universities. They’re part of a success story now entering a new chapter, one driven by the tragic turn of national events on 11 September 2001.

As the U.S. trade deficit widens, the flow of international students into U.S. universities is a little-recognized counterbalance. American universities enroll over half a million noncitizens; they bring an estimated $12 billion into the nation’s economy while bolstering the profile and prowess of U.S. academia.
Now the flow of foreign students is on the verge of thinning in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Two surveys this past autumn (see sidebar, page 9) point to a slowdown in the rate of increase of enrollments by international students, as well as a rise in the number of university-accepted students being turned away at U.S. consulates or borders.

UCAR and its members are feeling these effects. For instance, William Gutowski (Iowa State University) struggled last academic year to get a Chinese student into the country. “He appeared to have very good qualifications,” says Gutowski, “and so I did not expect any problems.” Despite a letter of support from Gutowski, the student was denied entrance after his initial interview and again following an appeal.

Alan Robock (Rutgers University) had a similar experience after September 11 with two students, one from China and the other from India. “Even though we wrote letters to the embassies, they did not get visas. Before that, we were always able to get visas for all the admitted students.” And from the University at Albany, State University of New York, Robert Keesee reports that one student from China obtained his visa only four days before classes began.

Caution takes time

“It’s getting harder and harder to bring people here,” reports Lara Cervantes, administrator for UCAR Human Resources. Cervantes works with more than 100 visa applicants each year, many of them postdoctoral-level scientists. Like her colleagues in university admissions offices, Cervantes has dealt with shifting agency structures and increased processing delays as the federal government addresses post-9/11 safety concerns.


UCAR’s Lara Cervantes says recent changes in immigration procedures have brought new challenges. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

The visa application process alone has become too daunting for some researchers. “We’ve had a few scientists who decided not to come to UCAR because of all the paperwork,” says Cervantes. She’s summarized many of the recent changes online for UCAR (see “On the Web”).

One factor behind the more complex interface between immigration agencies and the research/university world is SEVIS, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. After moving through years of development, SEVIS was put on the fast track and launched in 2002. Each file in SEVIS is tracked by an ID number rather than student name, and there is currently no way to access all of the files for a given student by using her or his name, creating the potential for confusion and delays. This is one of a host of concerns about SEVIS addressed in an open letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in December by Victor Johnson, associate executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Another potential holdup occurs with Visas Mantis, one of a variety of security advisory opinions on a visa applicant that can be issued by the Department of State at the request of a consular official. The Mantis category includes people coming to study, teach, research, or engage in business pertaining to an array of scientific and technical fields. A consular request for a Mantis search adds to the time required for obtaining a visa. Among the broad categories within Mantis are remote sensing, imaging, and reconnaissance; sensors and sensor technology; and marine technology.

Face to face

Perhaps the most crucial policy change for students and other visiting scientists is the requirement, as of August 2003, that every non-immigrant visa applicant undergo a personal interview at a consulate. Formerly, such interviews were conducted in only a few nations perceived to be the riskiest. Under the new rules, interviews will be required in all countries—including those, such as the United Kingdom, where no such routine existed before.
Given that the Department of State expects that only about 10 of applicants will have their interviews waived, the upshot is that each of the 850 consular officers worldwide now must meet with nearly 10,000 applicants a year, or about 40 per workday. The sheer volume has already produced delays that kept some students from arriving on time this academic year.

The visa interviews include questions about family and property, as well as about research topics. This means that each interviewer must watch for signs of potential terrorist activity by querying students from an enormous range of scientific specialties, all with interview time at a premium.

“What do consular officials know about nuclear science [for example]?,” says political scientist Michael Ledford of Lewis-Burke Associates, a Washington-based government relations firm. Ledford has been meeting with staff from Congress and immigration agencies about the visa interview process and relaying input collected from scientists at UCAR universities.

According to Ledford, Capitol Hill is listening. In the tense days immediately after September 11, some lawmakers proposed a full moratorium on student visas. Universities made their concerns known, says Ledford, and Congress helped craft the current set of rules in response to that and other feedback. “Since then,” he says, “Congress has been very receptive and supportive of universities and their missions.”

Now, as policymakers strive to make the system work better, Ledford advises faculty and prospective students to keep the feedback coming and to treat time, more than ever before, as the critical variable. According to Ledford, “Most students are getting in problem-free, but everything’s taking longer.”

by Bob Henson


The stats

While the numbers of international students attending U.S. schools continue to rise, they’re rising at a slower pace than in previous years, according to two recent surveys.

The Association of American Universities (AAU), the Association of International Educators (still known as NAFSA), and the National Association of State University and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) teamed up to conduct a survey on fall 2003 enrollment, application, and visa delay trends for international students and scholars. Responses came from 331 institutions. Among the 40 AAU ­members that replied:

  • Most schools (58%) reported an increased number of foreign applicants.
  • More schools saw their enrollments of international students increase (48%) than decrease (20%), with 20% reporting no change.
  • The rate of visa delays in fall 2003 grew by 57% for graduate students and 13% for undergraduates.
  • Of the 621 students who missed their academic start dates due to visa delays, 57% were from China and 30% were from Muslim or Arab countries. Just over half (57%) were studying engineering or physical sciences.
The Institute of International Education found that the growth rate of international student enrollments at U.S. institutions fell from 6.4% in 2001 to 0.6% this year. In a companion survey, the most commonly cited factor behind the drop (59% of professionals surveyed) was visa delays. As in the joint survey above, a minority of institutions (46%) reported declines in international enrollment.

“We are concerned about the rising numbers of students missing the beginning of classes and vital research projects being delayed,” says NASULGC president Peter Magrath. “Our security and our strong and vital tradition of encouraging academic and scientific exchange are not mutually exclusive. We need to consider how the visa process and other procedures can be adjusted to avoid these kinds of disruptions.”


What you can do

As part of his effort to address international student issues in Washington, Michael Ledford encourages anyone with input on visa interviews or other problems to contact him at “We need specific examples of students who have trouble getting into particular universities due to their particular degree programs or their particular countries.” Ledford says that visa applicants from Russia have enjoyed increased success in recent years, while those from China, India, and North Korea are having greater difficulty.

UCAR’s Lara Cervantes offers some timeless advice: “Plan well in advance. I can’t stress that enough.” She recommends preparing at least six months ahead for any visit by a foreign scientist, whether for a conference or a longer-term appointment.

Having a visa doesn’t guarantee a scientist can leave the United States and get back in. Cervantes reports that one NCAR researcher returned to China for a short visit in 2003 and wasn’t allowed back to the United States for over six months. To help minimize the risk of delay, she suggests that visa holders entering or reentering the country go through major airports and try to fly during the workweek, when key judgment calls are more likely to be made by more experienced officials. “The senior staff will be working during the day Monday through Friday. It’s the junior staff who work the less desirable shifts.”

Iowa State’s William Gutowski advises keeping as up to date as possible on where and when to expect problems. “Be prepared for frustrations. Be flexible, although this isn’t always possible with grants. Certainly, it’s a good idea to know what countries are more likely to have lower success rates for student visa applications and what factors are important.”


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UCAR Community Calendar