Government Rep Touts Visa Gains

Visa problems prevented six students—four fewer than last year—from making it to Cambridge in time for enrollment this semester, according to recent figures from the Harvard International Office.

The improvement is consistent with a decline in visa delays nationwide and is the result of recent government efforts to make the visa-issuing process—wildly unpredictable since Sept. 11—more efficient, an administrator in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said Tuesday.

C. Stewart Verdery Jr., the DHS assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy and planning, said his agency is now making a special push to ensure that foreign students aren’t deterred from studying in the United States. The push responds to a 32 percent drop in international student applications to the country’s graduate schools.

“We see these students coming in as the next generation of foreign leaders,” Verdery said. “We need them to be exposed to the best that America has to offer—our democratic traditions and capitalism, our media, our entertainment, our values.”

Following the government’s implementation of stricter border controls following Sept. 11 and the ensuing drop in international applications last year, University President Lawrence H. Summers sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell and DHS Secretary Tom Ridge ’67 last April demanding improvement in visa-processing procedures.

Verdery said Summers’ letter caught the attention of “everyone from the president on down.”

At a Faculty meeting Tuesday, Summers said he was pleased that fewer international students were prevented from attending Harvard this year, but cautioned that “this is still a matter of continuing concern.”

“It will be important that we focus on our recruiting of foreign students,” he said.

Verdery’s brief visit to Cambridge this week, during which he spoke to administrators from the International Office and several of Harvard’s schools, was his first meeting with University leaders not working exclusively on federal relations.

According to International Office Director Sharon Ladd, governmental response was significantly more efficient this year than it has been in the past.

“What happened this year was the government said to us that they had organized their cases in such a way that they felt the majority could be settled in 30 days or less,” she said. “Essentially, that was our experience.”

Hoping to bring the number of international university applicants back to their former level, Verdery said he has recently been working to publicize stories of students who have successfully obtained visas to study in the United States.

“We’ve got to make sure that the welcome mat is known overseas,” he said. “The competitiveness of attracting students and researchers is increasing, so we’ve got to meet that level of competition.”

Still, he says he’s relying on universities themselves to help.

“We’re working hard at our end, but it has to be a cooperative effort with universities themselves,” he said. “They need to get the word out as to their own programs and benefits, in that we’re not catering those.”

Ladd says the International Office discussed improvements to the visa process at its student orientation meeting this fall.

Margot Gill, administrative dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), says that she and her colleagues plan to try to boost declining application numbers by spreading word of improvements before the next admissions cycle begins.

“GSAS will be stepping up our efforts to communicate with colleges and universities, with faculty members, with funding sources and with Harvard clubs to present a message about this improved visa processing activity,” she said.

But Verdery said the DHS was working to solve widespread visa problems even before delays elicited outrage from the higher education community.

“I’m not sure if you want to call it a chicken-and-egg thing, but people were calling us as we were looking at things anyway, giving the ammunition that we needed to take our proposals to other government agencies,” he said.

Verdery cited adjustments to SEVIS, a notoriously bug-ridden database of international students launched in 2003, as an example of the department’s improvement. Last year 300 visa-holders were detained at airports as a result of problems with the processing of their records, he said. Only 80 have reported problems so far this year.

Verdery also cited US VISIT, a program that gathers biometric information about all non-citizens as they enter the country, as a success story. So far, 10 million visitors have passed through the system.

“About 300 people have been turned away for being inadmissible for prior criminal violations, connections to terrorism, prior immigration violations,” he said. “Finding these needles in the haystack is what the system’s designed to do, and it’s working extremely well.”

—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at heller@fas.harvard.edu.