Student Visa Delays Decline

Nine members of Harvard’s international community still have not arrived in Cambridge because of visa delays. But officials in the Harvard International Office (HIO) say this number—the lowest since Sept. 11, 2001—is an encouraging portent for those still awaiting documentation.

Contending with visa delays reached nightmare proportions in the Fall of 2002, after the government implemented regulations aimed at tightening national security, said HIO Director Sharon Ladd, who keeps track of the number of delayed students every year. She said dealing with delays has become a more lucid process in the ensuing years.

“People in our office, even without the data, felt a difference,” Ladd said. “Last year at this time, we had a total of 31 people who were on my visa delay list.” Of these, 10 never arrived in time for add-drop period, the last-hope deadline for enrollment.

Although Ladd is hesitant to draw conclusions until more definite numbers are in, she attributes this year’s sharp decline in part to pressure the University applied on Washington last year, when numbers of international applications dropped precipitously. University President Lawrence H. Summers, fearing that the delays would weaken Harvard’s international status, sent letters to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge ’67 last April, urging them to seek an expedient solution to the problem.

“If the visa process remains complicated and filled with delays, we risk losing some of our most talented scientists and compromising our country’s position at the forefront of technological innovation,” Summers wrote.

According to Ladd, the government seems to have made an earnest effort to resolve visa delays as expediently as possible. While in the past stranded students have often spent an indefinite period of time waiting for their visas, processing problems have cleared up within a more predictable time frame this year, she said.

“The government said that they were going to try to put these through in 30 days,” Ladd said. “And they did.” Two visa-delay cases have already been resolved since move-in week this year.

Noor A. Al-Dabbagh ’06, a student from Saudi Arabia and president of Harvard’s Society of Arab Students, arrived in Cambridge three days ago after waiting three weeks for her visa. Prior to Sept. 11, she said, the visa usually only took about a week to be issued.

The delay seemed to rise from slow visa processing in Saudi Arabia, where only two venues are capable of processing piles of visa applications, Al-Dabbagh said.

“People come in the morning and they wait for hours,” she said.

But Al-Dabbagh said she thinks her delay could been far worse.

“It’s not a big deal,” she said, explaining that she’s known students who didn’t make it to Cambridge for classes at all.

And the problem doesn’t have an easy fix—largely because visa delays do not have a single cause.

Much of the trouble can be traced back to the policy effects of Sept. 11, 2001, which tightened screening procedures. Visa consulars told non-immigrant visitors to the U.S. to anticipate some delays, but in many cases delays extended far beyond expectations. Some Harvard students had to wait months for visas that had formerly taken them only weeks to obtain.

Post-Sept. 11 legislation especially affects students from countries judged to be sponsors of terrorism—most of which are in the Middle East.

All but three of the nine students still stuck in their home countries are Middle Eastern, Ladd said. The remaining students are from China—which probably results from a regulation predating the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Ladd and her associates have been coaching international students on how to avoid getting caught in a delay. Much of the HIO’s efforts have focused on the immigrant-intent issue.

“We’ve tried to give people more guidance on how to overcome this presumption,” Ladd said.

But even with an eye to guidance, the HIO’s coverage of student concerns hasn’t been perfect—leading, in some cases, to further complications. Rowan W. Dorin ’07 realized shortly before coming to Cambridge that his visa forms lacked an important signature from the HIO. In the past, he said, the office had reported missing components of his applications significantly ahead of time. When Dorin reported the omission, the HIO told him that there was nothing he could do—except to plead for an exception with the customs officer.

“Having gone through American customs before, I thought my chances of their not noticing were next to none,” Dorin said. He pleaded and, to his surprise, he said, the customs officer let him through.

But Dorin said it was an experience he hopes not to repeat.

“It’s clearly my fault, because the HIO is so good ordinarily,” he said. “If anything, they lulled us into a false sense of security.”

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