University Advocates Caution Against Clampdown on Student-Visa Applications

University Advocates Caution Against Clampdown on Student-Visa Applications

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Tuesday, September 18, 2001

By RON SOUTHWICK

 

University officials and advocates fear that federal regulations governing foreign students may tighten after last week's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They acknowledge, however, that arguing against more restrictions, which may drastically reduce the number of foreign students studying in the United States, may be a difficult proposition in the coming months.

 

Even before the attacks, several research universities worried about reports of growing roadblocks for foreign students to gain visas, especially Chinese students. A number of institutions have protested a rise in the number of rejections of applications for student visas from China, the country supplying the most foreign students to the United States.

 

And college lobbyists have been fighting a plan by the federal government to collect a $95 fee from foreign students. The fee would finance a national system to gather information on students from other countries. Some advocates say it would pose a hardship and send a bad message by singling out international students.

 

Now, many academic officials expect that Congress will closely examine, and probably tighten, regulations governing foreign students. They caution, however, against setting up too many roadblocks to discourage students from other countries.

 

"The natural reaction would be to close our doors to foreign students, and that would be exactly the wrong step," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs of the American Council on Education, a lobbying group representing most of the country's colleges. "The lesson of the last week is we need more engagement with the world, not less."

 

State Department officials say it is too early to know if there will be any changes or limitations in the number of foreign students permitted to study here.

 

During the 1999-2000 academic year, 514,723 residents from foreign countries studied in the United States, according to the

Institute for International Education.

 

With 54,466 students, China supplied more than any other country. In recent months, a number of universities -- including

Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Duke, Harvard, and Syracuse Universities -- have complained about the growing number of Chinese students who cannot get visas.

 

State Department statistics show that 40 percent of all student-visa applications from China were rejected during the period from May 15 to June 20, compared with about 20 percent in that same period in 2000.

 

Several university officials met with representatives from the State Department last month to discuss the problem. Government officials contend that while more students are being rejected, it is partly because more are applying. State Department officials say there has been no change in policy or in the criteria for visa approval.

 

Nonetheless, college officials worry that international students may find it much harder to get a visa in the months ahead.

 

"The events of the last week are going to exacerbate this situation not just with China but with graduate students all over the world," said Thomas Linney, vice president and director of federal relations at the Council of Graduate Schools.

 

Restricting student visas may do little to improve security, because countries that have had past hostilities with the United States send very few students to American universities, higher-education advocates noted on Monday. Afghanistan sent about 20 students to U.S. universities in 1999-2000 academic year. About 450 students from Iran received student visas, while 50 students came from Iraq.

 

"The countries we are most worried about in international terrorism don't send many students to the U.S.," said Mr. Hartle, of the American Council on Education.

 

At the very least, opponents of the proposed monitoring system -- dubbed the Student and Exchange Visitor Program say that it will be very difficult to convince Congress that more monitoring of foreign students is not needed.

 

The monitoring system was designed to be a database storing the addresses, phone numbers, universities, and fields of study for foreign students. If a student dropped out of classes, officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service would be authorized to locate that individual.

 

The chief opponent of the monitoring program, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, has no plans to raise the issue with lawmakers in the immediate future.

 

"I'm sure we'll suffer some reverse in the weeks and months ahead, but ultimately I think we have a good case to make, and we intend to make it at the appropriate time," said Victor C. Johnson, the group's director of public policy. Mr. Johnson noted that the money that would be used for the monitoring program could be better spent on more effective counter-terrorism measures.

 

The Bush administration had considered putting it into place this fall. But after members of Congress expressed concerns about the program, officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service decided to delay its implementation and continue reviewing it. Some lawmakers had said there would not enough time to provide notice to foreign students.

 

NAFSA had also argued that the fee to finance the national database would be a hardship on students from poor countries, and that the program sends an unwelcome message by singling out foreign students for monitoring.

 

The system was devised as the result of federal immigration legislation passed in 1996. Congress passed the law following reports that one of those involved with the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 had been living in the country with an expired student visa.

 

Mr. Hartle said the new monitoring system by itself would not prevent terrorist attacks. "It would not have averted the tragedy last week," he said.

 

Some advocates like Mr. Hartle suggested that the State Department should invest more money in hiring people to interview applicants for student visas. Many officials at U.S. embassies spend only a few minutes interviewing each candidate. Hiring more people would allow officials to spend more time examining those who wish to enter the country.

 

"That's the area we ought to be thinking about strengthening," Mr. Hartle said.

 

Copyright 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education