New INS rules unlikely to harm current U students

K.C. Howard

Florencia Agote will graduate from the University this semester, a testament to five years of studying in the North Star State away from her home in Argentina.

But her mother, who wishes to obtain a visitor’s visa to attend the May graduation ceremony, is in limbo at the behest of the U.S. embassy.

“She needs to show letters showing that I’m graduating. She needs to prove that she has property in Argentina,” Agote said. “She needs to fulfill all sorts of requirements in order for a visa to be granted.”

Agote is among other University foreign students who knew even before the Sept. 11 attacks just how hard it is to get into the United States.

The Immigration and Naturalization Services’ latest visa restriction which, as of Monday, requires foreigners to obtain a student visa before enrolling in U.S. universities, isn’t going to make it any easier.

“It’s specifically to maintain knowledge of who is here and what they’re up to,” said Bill Strassberger, an INS public affairs assistant.

Most students who want to attend U.S. institutions fill out an I20 form and apply for a visa before leaving their home countries; the INS’ new regulation will not affect them.

But foreigners traveling in the States on a tourist or business visa who wish to change to a student visa must return to their countries and wait one to six months for visa approval before attending courses.

“Prior to this rule, all they had to do is file for the change in status, and they could start their studies,” Strassberger said.

Two Sept. 11 hijackers attended flight school while waiting for the INS to process their student visas.

INS officials say they hope the regulation and the implementation of a foreign student tracking system will ensure proper background checks occur before foreign students enter the United States.

“For us in the Middle East, it’s very, very hard to get a student visa,” said Sulieman Nader, a senior from Jordan studying human resources development. “(The regulation) causes more hassles for people. It’s just one more rule to make things a little bit more strict.”

University and INS officials are doubtful the student visa regulation will detract from the 3,628 Twin Cities campus students studying with a student visa.

But a federally mandated foreign student tracking system – which will be up and running January 2003 – has some foreign students offended.

“It’s a violation of your right to privacy,” Agote said. “I don’t think because I’m an international student I’m a threat to the country.”

INS officials say the current paper-based system that used to keep track of foreign students is full of holes.

“We don’t always know if a student who is here has continued to maintain a full-time load or not,” Strassberger said. “We would actually have to go to the school, pull the file and research whether they are or are not.”

An automated system, linking universities to federal agencies, would ensure the INS gets up-to-date information on 29 elements, ranging from a student’s course load to his or her criminal and academic history.

Despite the INS’ lax tracking policies, University officials said they keep a watchful eye on foreign students and adhere to INS policies, which require students to take a full course load – unless formally exempted by an adviser – and prohibit first-year foreign students from working.

INS officials say those seeking a U.S. education should plan their academic itinerary at least six months in advance.