Students Blocked By Visa Troubles
Process toughened since 9/11
The visa application process—always an undertaking—has become much more difficult since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, when the U.S. government began implementing a new wave of national security legislation.
Some of the students unable to arrive for the beginning of this term have been detained by regulations established in the wake of Sept. 11, which primarily target students from countries identified as terrorist-sponsoring states. But most are from China—held outside the country by a rule predating recently adopted national security regulations.
For several years, the government has required students from countries with high immigration rates, such as China, to prove their intent to return home after completing their education. Students unable to show strong ties to their homelands are frequently unable to enter the U.S.
But Harvard officials say they have hope, since the process this year was less confusing and more expedient than last year, when more than a dozen international students were prevented from entering the country.
Senior Director of Federal and State Relations Kevin Casey said delays involving lost paperwork or extra scrutiny of applicants were clarified earlier this year, allowing more students to touch ground in Cambridge before fall classes began.
“The process for the student was certainly not without interruption, but it did not rise to the level of our worst fears and it’s seemed a little more transparent than last year’s,” he said.
According to Director of the Harvard International Office (HIO) Sharon Ladd, not more than 10 students are presently unable to make their first classes, despite fears earlier this summer that this year could be the worse than last.
“The message we’re getting back, unlike last year when things seemed quite mysterious, is that things are moving forward,” she said.
At this time last year, about a dozen students were detained in their home countries as a result of a massive visa-processing backlog.
Earlier this summer the government issued a regulation requiring all visa applicants to sign up for an interview, an additional step in the application process visa officers had previously required only of students and a cross-section of other applicants.
Fearing that this new provision—coupled with widespread problems with the required installation of a new national database of all foreign students—Casey, Ladd and University General Counsel Robert Iuliano formed an ad hoc focus committee over the summer to brainstorm strategies for avoiding problems that the year could bring.
The group organized information sharing and efforts to educate international students about potential pitfalls.
“This year, we were anticipating it and we were sort of ready for it,” Ladd said. In some cases, she explains, this meant asking the government directly about delayed applications.
“There have been a couple of cases where we’ve put in inquiries with security clearances,” she said.
And the process has gone both ways. Ladd reported that government officials have phoned the HIO directly with unprecedented frequency over the past couple of months to inquire about specific students held at the borders because of incomplete documentation.
The government has granted students highest priority in scheduling application interviews—a response to complaints about last year’s delays from throughout the higher education community. Casey said this measure has prevented University’s fears of a massive backlog from being realized.
When the new national security legislation was enacted, some in the educational community speculated the new policies would dissuade talented foreign students from seeking education in the U.S.
Ladd said she did not yet know whether the number of international students at Harvard has dropped as a result of the regulations.
—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at email@example.com.