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Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks,
efforts to increase national security have had
significant impacts on foreign students and scholars.
When the USA Patriot Act of 2001 and the Enhanced
Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002
tightened both the requirements and the enforcement
of entry procedures for foreign visitors, academia
was one of the areas affected most. The Student
and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)
was created to allow officials to maintain up-to-date
information on foreign students and exchange visitors
in the US, but the logistics of gathering individuals'
information, maintaining such a large database,
and paying for the program have proven formidable.
Now almost a year after the August 1, 2003 deadline
for registering all new and continuing students
and exchange visitors into the SEVIS database,
foreign students and scholars are still enduring
visa frustrations while universities across the
nation are trying to cope with their absence.
Various surveys conducted since 2001 have indicated
declines in the number of foreign students enrolling
in US colleges and universities. In a survey released
in February 2004, nearly half of the 250 institutions
that provided data on prospective graduate students
reported a drop in international applicants .
Another study released in March by the Council
of Graduate Schools confirmed this decline, noting
a 32% decrease in the number of international
graduate student submissions for fall 2004 compared
to fall 2003 . The countries hit hardest by
the tighter entry requirements have been China
and India; graduate applications from students
in China declined by 76% while those from India
fell 58% .
The scientific fields in particular have been
affected by these declines. Because students in
the science and engineering fields are more likely
to study one of the sensitive subjects on the
government's Technology Alert List, they are likely
to face even greater security checks by the Visas
Mantis program---a program designed to protect
against the transfer of sensitive technologies.
In a study of 71 cases, the Government Accountability
Office (formerly the General Accounting Office)
found that it took an average of 67 days to review
applications requiring this more extensive Visas
Mantis review . With such long delays, students
are becoming discouraged with coming to the US,
which may explain increases in foreign applicants
for other countries. For example, Australia experienced
a 16.5% increase in the number of foreign students
in the 2003 academic year .
Increased security has also kept many foreign
students and scholars from even attending short
academic meetings in the US. In November 2003,
two Chinese-born University of Toronto students
were prevented from attending a scientific conference
in Austin, Texas despite the fact that they had
applied for visas, booked all travel plans, were
invited to present research posters and had attended
the same meeting in 2002 . It took 3 months
to process the security and background checks
on the students, which was well after the end
of the conference . Previously in October 2002,
an Iran-born University of Toronto professor and
Canadian citizen was so angered by having to be
fingerprinted, photographed and questioned prior
to coming to chair a National Science Foundation
meeting in the US, that he decided to cancel his
trip . Such rigorous background checks of Canadian
citizens born in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan or Syria
were part of the National Security Entry Exit
Registration System (NSEERS) law that went into
effect nationally on October 1, 2002 . NSEERS
has now been predominately replaced by SEVIS and
US-VISIT, which is another set of security measures
that went into effect at 115 airports and 15 seaports
in January 2004 .
Believing that improvements to the visa process
need to occur soon and can be made without jeopardizing
the security of the nation, many scientific, academic
and professional organizations are urging reforms.
In May, 25 leading scientific, engineering and
educational organizations representing nearly
95% of the American research community, sent a
statement to President Bush and Congress with
six suggestions on how to improve the current
visa process . The suggestions included:
" 1.) Extending the validity of Visas Mantis
security clearances for international students
and scholars from the current one-year time period
to the duration of their course of study.
" 2.) Establishing more timely visa renewal
processes including renewals that can be started
prior to leaving the US.
" 3.) Creating a mechanism whereby applicants
and sponsors can track their applications and
have applications pending for 30+ days moved to
the top of the waiting list.
" 4.) Ensuring clear protocols and trained
consular staff for screening applications so as
to avoid inconsistent treatment.
" 5.) Revising visa reciprocity agreements
between the US and countries like China and Russia
that send large numbers of scholars and students
in order to reduce the number of times visiting
scholars have to renew their visas.
" 6.) Implementing a fee collection system
for SEVIS .
In June 2003, the State Department started to
allow American consulates to fast-track visa applications
for foreign scientists and federal workers returning
to the US who had already received visas or cleared
a security review within the past year . Additionally,
on July 1, the US Department of Homeland Security
announced that the SEVIS fees will be $100 for
most full-time students and scholars and will
be levied by mail or credit card on the Internet
prior to applying for US visas . This removes
the burden of collecting fees from colleges and
universities and will reduce the amount of tax
money needed to support the SEVIS system.
A somewhat controversial case involving visa fraud
and possible terrorist conspiracy began in February
2003 with the arrest of a Saudi Ph.D. candidate
in computer science at the University of Idaho.
Sami Omar al-Hussayen, found to be the webmaster
to a number of Islamic organizations linked to
supporting terrorism, was arrested and charged
with three counts of conspiracy and 11 counts
of false statements and visa fraud . After
two months at trial and debate over the constitutionality
of the charges against him, al-Hussayen was eventually
acquitted of the terrorism counts and freed of
the remaining accusations of visa fraud and false
statements, but only upon his deportation back
to Saudi Arabia . This case was one of the
few instances when an individual, and in particular,
a foreign student, has been prosecuted under the
USA Patriot Act that makes it a criminal offense
to give expertise or aid to groups affiliated
with terrorism .
The business sector has also been feeling the
strain related to visa issues. A survey released
in June 2004 estimates that since July 2002, US
exporters have lost more than $30 billion in revenue
and indirect costs due to problems in handling
visas for foreign business travelers . More
than half of the 734 companies surveyed agreed
that the visa process is worse today than it was
one year ago. In response to this survey, the
National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC) released
visa reform recommendations similar to the ones
outlined above by the nation's research community
1 "Survey of Applications by Prospective
International Students to U.S. Higher Education
Institutions." February 2004. Available at:
2 Arnone, Michael. "New Survey Confirms Sharp
Drop in Applications to U.S. Colleges From Foreign
Graduate Students." The Chronicle of Higher
Education. March 4, 2004.
3 Arnone, Ibid.
4 United States General Accounting Office. "Border
Security: Improvements Needed to Reduce Time Taken
to Adjudicate Visas for Science Students and Scholars."
Report. GAO-04-371, February 25, 2004. URL: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04371.pdf.
5 Bollag, Burton. "Australia Sees Strong
Gains in Enrollment of Foreign Students."
The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 9, 2004.
6 Payne, Doug. "Students blocked from US
meeting." The Scientist. February 2, 2004.
7 Payne, Ibid.
8 Szustaczek, Christine. "U.S. Border Laws
Keep Professor Home." University of Toronto,
News@UofT. November 22, 2002. URL: http://www.news.utoronto.ca/bin3/021122b.asp.
9 Payne, Ibid.
10 Department of Homeland Security website. Travel
and Transportation: US-VISIT. URL: http://tinyurl.com/3oewn
11 "Statement and Recommendations on Visa
Problems Harming America's Scientific, Economic
and Security Interests." May 12, 2004. http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2004/0512visa.shtml.
12 "Statement and Recommendations
13 Bhattacharjee, Yudhijt. "Reentry Erased
for Government Grantees." Science. July 4,
2003, vol. 301, p. 28.
14 Karlin-Resnick, Joshua. "U.S. Agency Publishes
Final Rules for Collecting $100 Fee From Foreign
Students." The Chronicle of Higher Education.
July 2, 2004.
15 Schmidt, Susan. "Saudi Student's Trial
Opens in Idaho." The Washington Post. April
16 Read, Brock. "U. of Idaho Student Who
Was Acquitted of Terrorism Charges Will Be Deported."
The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 2, 2004.
17 Egan, Timothy. "Computer Student on Trial
for Aid to Muslim Web Sites." The New York
Times. April 27, 2004.
18 The Santangelo Group. "Do Visa Delays
Hurt US Business?" Survey. June 2, 2004.
19 Recommendations can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/6ugw4