Visa rules impeding international students from coming to U.S.

By Josh Drobnyk, The Herald-Sun

April 24, 2004   9:20 pm

DURHAM -- Yuan Yuan hasn't been back to China since she arrived at Duke University in August 2002. She's afraid if she goes home, she won't be able to return to finish her Ph.D. because of visa processing delays.

It's a concern shared by many Chinese students at Duke, Yuan says, and is largely responsible for the dramatic drop in Chinese applicants to the university. With the application deadline for the fall semester fast approaching, only 1,000 Chinese have applied, half the number last year, says Yuan, president of the Duke Chinese Students and Scholars Association.

But it appears Chinese students are just one of several foreign nationalities affected at Triangle universities by what many educators and legislators say are backlogs in visa processing. The number of international students is decreasing at all four major Triangle universities, even as overall enrollments are increasing.

The combined international student enrollment at Duke University, UNC, N.C. State University and N.C. Central University decreased by 606, or 12 percent, from 2001 to 2003, according to the departments that handle student statistics at the schools. During the same period, the overall student population increased by nearly 4,000, or 5 percent, at the four universities.

In addition to some students not being able to get visas, international applicants are increasingly opting to bypass the potential delays by studying in the United Kingdom or Australia, students and educators say.

"Getting a visa has always been a problem, especially after Sept. 11," said Yuan, a 23-year-old Ph.D. candidate in religious studies. "It is so inefficient; it usually takes three months. Coming to the United States for graduate students is one of multiple options."


Duke University's International Office Director, Catheryn Cotten, said the government had erected a series of "hurdles" since 9/11 that made the entry process time-consuming, complicated and expensive for international students.

"Every little step is more difficult than it was before," Cotten said. Duke's 2003-04 international student enrollment decreased 16 percent from 2001-02, while its overall enrollment increased by 8 percent. "It is a collection of bureaucracies that have been set up generally with good intent but with negative results."

All international students applying for a visa are now required to have an interview at the U.S. embassy in their respective country. Because embassies are bogged down with other compulsory interviews for foreigners traveling to the United States, this can take weeks to set up, educators say.

Last year the new Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement established the Student Exchange Visitor Information System to keep track of the country's 586,000 international students. The bureau is currently finalizing plans to begin charging foreign students a one-time $100 fee to pay for the new system, which in its first year was criticized by legislators and educators for technical glitches that led to delays.

There is also the issue of the Technology Alert List -- set up in August 2000 but expanded since 9/11 -- that compels embassies to do more extensive background checks on students planning to study one of several technological or scientific fields. The list is not public information, according to Stuart Patt, a State Department spokesman, but past leaks of the list have indicated fields such as geology, physics and architecture are included. Patt said all visa applications for students planning to study one of the fields on the list are sent to Washington, where it could take "a little longer" than a month to make the rounds of any agency the State Department deems relevant.

"That seems to be the black hole," said Elizabeth James, the SEVIS compliance officer at UNC's International Center. "Once [the application] goes to D.C. we can't get it. It really is a black hole." James said Chinese students have been hurt the most because not only are they the largest foreign student population at the school -- there are 300 -- but many Chinese students study scientific fields. The numbers of Indian and Korean students, which are the second and third largest foreign populations at UNC respectively, have also decreased as a result of the delays, James said. UNC's international enrollment dropped by 7 percent between 2001 and 2003.

Patt acknowledged that there were "very long" delays in processing international student applications for the 2003-04 school year, but said the State Department had fixed the problem. Last summer the department added a five-person security advisory office to deal solely with reviewing applications, and was "almost ready" to begin an online processing system to correspond with U.S. embassies abroad.

"The fact is that student applications are handled very expeditiously," Patt said. "The overwhelming majority of students get a visa within a day or two."

Application drop

It took nine months for UNC student Huaizhi Geng, 27, to get a new visa after returning to China to visit her parents. Geng, a Ph.D. candidate in material science who has been at UNC since 2000, went home in March 2003 and finally got her re-entry visa approved in December 2003.

"I missed a whole semester," said Geng, adding that during her only previous return to China in December 2001, the visa application process only took a few days. "[The embassy] didn't tell me anything. They just said wait. I didn't know it would take nine months at first, so I couldn't plan for anything."

When international students' visas are approved, they have a specified amount of time to enter the United States before their visas expire, depending on where they are from. Chinese students are given six months and can enter the United States twice during that period.

Geng said if she had known about the visa problems she would encounter while studying here, she would never have come to the United States to study. She said she had many friends whose visa applications were rejected.

"It takes us a lot of time and money to apply for school in the United States," she said. "When you get [accepted] and apply for a visa and it is denied, it is kind of a disaster."

It appears the delays are affecting how many international students are applying for next year as well. At UNC, graduate international applications are down about 13 percent for next year, while undergraduate applications have decreased about 6 percent, although the school is still accepting applications, according to the university's admissions office. Meanwhile, admissions offices at N.C. Central and Duke reported that international applications for fall 2004 had dropped by 50 percent and 19 percent respectively, compared with last year. The international student office at N.C. State University expects overall international applications for next year to drop about 30 percent, according to Michael Bustle, the office's director.

But Bustle said the decrease at N.C. State had yet to cause alarm among university staff.

"I don't think the folks who do the enrollment planning are terribly concerned yet," he said, adding that they still had hundreds of quality international applicants to chose from. "We really are designed for the residents of North Carolina. If applications plummeted, I think we'd be concerned." N.C. State's international student enrollment decreased by 18 percent from 2001 to 2003.


Nationally, the issue has caused enough anxiety to warrant two hearings within the House Committee on Science. At the second hearing last month, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., and Rep. Ralph Hall, D-Texas, asked the General Accounting Office to further investigate the matter.

"Unnecessarily impeding the flow of students and scholars in and of itself can erode our national security," Boehlert said at the hearing. "These people are a vital source of new ideas and perspectives."

They are also a source of income. International education is the United States' fifth largest service export and contributes $11 billion to the American economy every year, according to the Department of Commerce.

Meanwhile, Yuan, Geng and other Chinese students at North Carolina universities are lobbying their respective university presidents and U.S. senators to speed up the visa application process. Several Chinese students met with an aide for Sen. John Edwards last week to discuss the issue.

Whether or not the process is expedited, Yuan plans to risk returning to China this summer to see her family. "Hopefully I can get my visa," she said.

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