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Foreigners facing more hurdles to study in U.S.
By Alana Semuels (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Updated: 2004-08-24 11:28

For one group of students starting school in Pittsburgh this week, it took more than a little determination to get here.

Weiyi Zhang, left, and Chang Liu, both from China, confer during an orientation session for University of Pittsburgh international students at the William Pitt Student Union.
A group of 25 U.S. educational and scientific groups has complained about new visa restrictions on international students and has suggested the following reforms:

Allow security clearances for foreign students and researchers to last for the length of their course of study in the U.S. instead of just one year, as long as they don't change their area of study.

Let students begin their visa renewal process before they leave the U.S. for temporary visits to family or for scientific conferences, so they won't be unnecessarily delayed getting back in to the U.S.

Give priority to visa applications that haven't been approved within 30 days.

Improve training of consular officials so the screening rules are applied equitably in all locations.

Revise agreements with countries like China and Russia to extend the duration of visas so they don't need to be renewed so often.

Make it easier for foreign students to pay the new fee for financing a tracking database of such students in the U.S.

Add staff to consular offices to speed visa processing.

The students are from foreign nations, and in this post-9/11 world, they had to run the Department of Homeland Security's tough new gantlet for getting a student visa.

For one graduate student from Iran, it meant providing four sets of fingerprints. For another from Chile, it meant showing proof he owned a house and a car there. For a Swiss student, it meant waiting five hours for a three-minute interview.

Challenges like these are one reason why neither the University of Pittsburgh nor Carnegie Mellon University expect to see an increase this year in their foreign student contingents, in keeping with a national trend that reflects the impact of heightened security barriers since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Carnegie Mellon had 2,534 international students last year, nearly a quarter of its total enrollment, while Pitt had 1,731, or about 5 percent of its total. Nationally, there were 586,323 international students in the U.S. last year, an increase of less than 1 percent over the previous year, in contrast to a 6 percent gain the previous year.

Graduate students who were interviewed at a welcoming picnic this week said the arduous task of getting a visa, or at least the perception of how difficult it is, had driven many of their fellow students to seek an education outside the United States.

An Weizhe felt the consequences of the increased security. A water resource engineering student from Tianjin, China, An was accepted last year into another graduate school, which he declined to name, and was awarded a sizable scholarship. But when he applied for a visa, he was rejected. He applied again. And again. And again.

Finally, on his fifth try, after he had lost his spot at his original university, he was told he could study in the U.S.

New rigor for old rules

U.S. immigration laws have always asked international students to prove they plan to stay in the U.S. only for the duration of their studies, but the new security climate since 9/11 has made that scrutiny much more rigorous.

An said he won't try to go back to China for a visit anytime soon, because many international students have found themselves stranded in their home countries waiting for their visas to be renewed.

Weiyi Zhang, a doctoral student in physics from the same city as An, said that many Chinese students are studying in Canada, where it is much easier to get a visa. Others are turning to the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan.

Australia experienced an 11 percent increase in the number of international students last year over the previous one, government officials said, including a 22 percent increase in students from the Middle East.

The United Kingdom also saw a record increase of 23 percent in the number of international students in higher education last year, triple the rate of growth in previous years.

As many international students shift to other nations, those who are coming to the U.S. will face a new hurdle soon. On Sept. 1, each will be required to pay $100 to help finance a federal electronic database that will keep track of them here.

"It's not a good message to be sending to internationals," said David Clubb, director of the Office of International Services at the University of Pittsburgh.

On the other hand, Clubb said he was pleased that the departments of State and Homeland Security had cabled consular offices on July 15 and instructed them to give priority in scheduling appointments to students applying for visas.

A three-hour wait

That might change the kind of ordeal that Swiss student Francesca Amati went through.

Amati, who will be working on a doctorate in exercise physiology, went to the consular office in Bern after her first appointment was canceled. She was asked to take off her shoes to go through security, was fingerprinted, and waited in a five-hour line to undergo a three-minute interview that led to approval of her visa. "It felt like a prison," she said with a smile.

Amati said some Swiss "think it is not a good moment to come to the United States," but she was willing to go through the visa maze because she wants to share her life experiences and learn those of Americans.

While all students get the same application forms from their universities, once they take them to the nearest consular office, it is up to individual consular officials to decide how to apply the regulations.

A policy statement signed by 25 educational and scientific groups in the U.S. stressed the need for consular offices to be more consistent in how they apply the visa rules, and advocated better training for those handling visa requests.

Homeland Security officials say they are trying to strike a balance between welcoming students into the country and implementing effective security measures.

Some international students in Pittsburgh, such as Kuwaiti Ruba Almelaifi, understand the reasoning behind the tighter rules.

"It's their right," she said of the process that required her husband to wait two weeks to get a visa to visit her. "I respect their point of view." She decided to study here because Pitt was receptive to her, and the friendliness of Pittsburgh residents has convinced her she made the right choice.

Hurdles for Muslim men

Others are more wary.

"They don't give visas at all to come here," said Reza Allazadeh, an Iranian student who will start working on his doctorate in mechanical engineering at Pitt.

"I am here because I have been in the United States since before 9/11," said Allazadeh, who studied at Brown University for four years, but still had to get fingerprinted four times to get his newest visa.

While the United States does not ban students from any particular nation, the post-9/11 "Condor" reviews often mean that any Muslim Middle Eastern male will undergo a lengthier visa process, said Ursula Oaks, of the Association of International Educators.

So while it's unlikely that no Iranians are allowed into the U.S. now, she said, that could very well be the perception in Iran. "That kind of thing travels by word of mouth," she said.

But it's not just Middle Eastern students who face high hurdles to get here.

Jaime Rubin de Celis, a Bolivian student at the Katz Graduate School of Business at Pitt, has financial support from his adopted country of Chile for his studies. Yet he also had to prove that he owned a house and a car in Chile and had a Chilean bank account before he was issued a visa -- evidence for consular officials that he would return to that country.

Those kind of requirements are disappointing to many in the Americas who have long wanted to come to the United States, de Celis said, and it has sent them searching for friendship elsewhere.

"We feel," he said, "that European countries are more eager to welcome us."

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