Bill creating new student visa helps part-time international commuters

Elizabeth Dunbar

Mexican and Canadian commuter students who study part time at U.S. colleges will be able to do so legally with a new student visa.

Congress passed a bill last week that would create two new classes of student visas: one for vocational programs and another for academic study. The bill requires these part-time students to apply for a student visa, whereas before they were allowed in the country with a temporary visa.

President George W. Bush is expected to sign the legislation, which would solve problems for part-time students who have difficulties crossing the borders because of heightened security resulting from last year’s terrorist attacks.

Tim Counts, spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Minnesota, said people couldn’t legally commute and study part time in the United States before.

“There was no law to do that,” Counts said. “Visitors visas don’t allow people to go to school, and student visas require people to go to school full time.”

The bill wouldn’t affect University students, Counts said, but it would apply to Minnesota colleges near the Canadian border.

One such college is Rainy River Community College in International Falls, Minn., where approximately one dozen Canadian commuter students study part time.

“It’s a good thing for us,” said Carol Grim, the college’s public information and development director.

Grim said being able to commute across the U.S. border to study is important because some Canadian colleges have limited academic programs.

For example, Grim said, Rainy River offers a liberal arts program that is closer for some students than any liberal arts programs in Canada.

“It expands your opportunities when you live in a small town,” Grim said.

Increased security meant a crackdown on students who were studying in the United States with temporary visitor visas.

El Paso Community College in El Paso, Texas, experienced a large drop in Mexican students when immigration officials started enforcing visa regulations, said Miguel Martinez-Lazo, international programs director at the college.

Out of more than 26,000 students at the college, Martinez-Lazo said approximately 3,000 are Mexican commuter students.

In the weeks following Sept. 11, 2001, Martinez-Lazo said that number dropped to approximately 200 students because of heightened security at the border.

“I think it will be better than the way it was,” Martinez-Lazo said of the bill. “Even though they must have a visa, they will be able to commute to study.”

Though Martinez-Lazo said he thinks the bill will help students, he has concerns about possible barriers.

“I think students might have trouble getting visas,” he said, saying that the process takes longer than before.

Luis Bartolomei, the immigration attorney for the University Student Legal Service, said such bills show that some security measures meant to combat terrorism were too harsh, turning away people who the government had previously allowed into the United States more easily.

“I think we’re going to see these little Band-Aid remedies to undo the over-breadth of policies,” he said.

“Making policies more narrow would cause all sorts of problems with equal protection issues,” Bartolomei said, explaining that law enforcement couldn’t target specific groups of people.

Though the bill would require an extra step for students, Grim said she thinks it will not deter Mexican and Canadian students from commuting to study part time in the United States.

“I think it takes the fear away from being turned away at the border,” she said.


Elizabeth Dunbar covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]