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