U.S. Visa policies strand foreign students

CBy Lauren R. Dorgan
Harvard Crimson
Harvard University

cAMBRIDGE, Mass. (U-WIRE) – Today, Adrian Ow Yung Hwei is slated to register as a first-year with the rest of the Class of 2006. But Hwei can’t step foot within U.S. borders, since he has yet to receive his visa.

Because Hwei is from Malaysia – one of 26 countries for which the State Department has created newly-strict, post-Sept. 11 visa policies – no one can guarantee when his visa will arrive.

Hwei is one of handful students slated to enroll at Harvard this fall who are currently in a state of limbo, wondering if their paperwork will arrive in time for them to make it to class.

These students, now waiting in countries including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, face a convoluted new security system still in its forming stages, and tight-lipped officials who can’t tell them what is going on-or when they will get their visas.


As of July 25, Mohamed Al-Ississ ’00 was set for this year-he had a slot as a first-year at the Business School and, as a resident tutor in business, a suite in Mather House with his name on it. He would be spending the term with his fiancé, also a Harvard graduate student slated to graduate in 2004. He expected to pick up his visa at the American Embassy in Jordan, another of the 26 countries subject to new restrictions, on July 28.

But on July 26, Al-Ississ received a phone call from the embassy, informing him that “new instructions” would mean a considerable delay for his visa.

Al-Ississ is still in Jordan, waiting.

“No one could give you a guarantee by what date it will be done,” said State Department spokesperson Stuart Patt.

Patt said a significant backlog prevents new visa applications from getting immediate attention.

Patt declined to describe the new security procedures for visa applications, saying only that all U.S. security organizations are involved.

“We’re as anxious as anyone to see to it visas don’t take too long,” Patt said. “We are [also] more concerned that security checks be done.”

For Al-Ississ, who has devoted many hours to lobbying for his cause, the paperwork is already too late. Business School students of the Class of 2004 registered on Aug. 23, and a 10-day extension he received from HBS has come and gone.

“HBS has a very strict policy on zero tolerance for absence,” Al-Ississ wrote in an e-mail. “While being sympathetic to my situation, they did not allow me to join later than that because classes have been well underway.”

The Business School offered him a spot in next year’s class, which he has accepted.

Meanwhile, Mather has scrambled to put a residential tutor into the suite reserved for Al-Ississ, and they don’t have an in-house business tutor.

As a College graduate who then worked at a major consulting group for two years, Al-Ississ was uniquely well-equipped for the job, said Mather House Master Leigh Hafrey, adding that Mather will try to make a spot for him next year.

In the meantime, Al-Ississ is looking for a job in Jordan and trying to get past his draining months.

“It is logistical, financial, and personal devastating experience,” Al-Ississ wrote.


Hwei, whose education is being paid for by the Malaysian government, faces similarly distressing options.

He has received special permission from the Freshman Dean’s Office to arrive in four days, on Sept. 13-but only if his visa has arrived by then.

Meanwhile, his scholarship is at stake, he said-the government controls the funding, and the terms are not under his control.

The government has told him that it is considering placing him in a college in New Zealand or Australia along with other scholarship students who face delays in getting American visas, Hwei said.

“As one of my friends jocularly noted, ‘down under, and not just geographically,'” Hwei wrote in an e-mail.

But in the meantime, Hwei is “crossing his fingers” — and enlisting all the support he can muster.

“The Harvard Club of Malaysia offered the Embassy a guarantee of good behavior for me in order to procure a temporary visa,” Hwei wrote, but the State Department did not take them up on the offer.

His family is contacting newspapers and companies, senators and state department officials all in order to publicize his cause.

Meanwhile, his Harvard-assigned host family — a local family charged with easing his transition to life in Cambridge — have contacted Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56.

Hwei, in the meantime, has been mulling his options should he need to postpone for a year.

“One of the plans I am taking quite seriously is the idea of starting a youth magazine together with a friend supposed to enroll in Yale this fall,” Hwei wrote.


Ahmed El-Gaili ’98, originally of Sudan, is waiting in London for his visa so he can join his Law School class and graduate this year.

El-Gaili said a Sudanese passport has always meant he can get only short-term visas into the U.S – but it used to take less than a week to obtain one.

“That was the world before Sept. 11,” El-Gaili said.

When the embassy requested an interview in mid-August, El-Gaili said he realized his term was in trouble.

He e-mailed HLS Dean of Students Suzanne Richardson to let her know about his situation, he said, and he credits her with helping make his term possible.

He has received permission to enroll as late as Sept. 30, and meanwhile he’s trying to enroll in a British law school. He said HLS officials have told him he will receive credit for his work abroad so he can graduate with his class in June.

Now he just has to find a law school which will accept an application mere weeks before most English law schools start – and after contacting every college of Oxford and Cambridge and many other schools, he has just one prospect, he said.

El-Gaili had a job offer from the New York law firm where he spent his summer, Sullivan and Cromwell, but due to the difficulties he’s faced in getting a visa, he’s considering working in London instead.

“It’s definitely not the same U.S. I came to nine years ago-not the same open welcoming society, at least to people from my part of the world,” El-Gaili said.


On Friday, several student groups sent a letter to University President Lawrence H. Summers, urging the former treasury secretary to personally lobby for the stranded students.

Harvard has been pushing on behalf of these three and other students in a similar bind, according to Vice President for Government, Community and Public Affairs Alan J. Stone.

“President Summers is sympathetic to the cases of the students that have been brought to his attention,” Stone said.

“He’s used his office as well as other parts of the University to push the system on behalf of the students who are awaiting a decision and he will continue to do that.”

Harvard does tread a fine line, said Senior Director of Federal and State Relations Kevin Casey, since the University needs to maintain relationships and credibility with the State Department as it hammers out new post-Sept. 11 restrictions.

Along with other major research universities, Harvard is keeping track of its students affected by visa restrictions — and Casey will attend a meeting Tuesday to discuss the issue.

In the longer run, State Department spokesperson Patt said that a slate of improvements to the visa-issuing system might come into place, although he declined to discuss the particulars.

“It’s still in the discussion stage,” Patt said.