Visa troubles, tracking system, new policies deter foreign students

Branden Peterson

Three years ago, Ali Nasiri-Amini was accepted into the University’s graduate program to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering.

Living with his family in Iran, Nasiri-Amini knew he needed a visa before he came to the United States.

He traveled to the nearest U.S. consulate office, filed the standard paperwork, proved his identity and stated his reasons for traveling to the United States.

The consulate office told him he would have his visa in four to six weeks, but the process took five months.

He missed his first semester at the University and did not fly across the Atlantic Ocean to Minnesota until November 2000.

“I wasn’t the only one that had this problem,” Nasiri-Amini said.

In fact, he still knows several individuals struggling to get visas to study in the United States.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, international students experience tightened screening processes when trying to study in the United States. Nasiri-Amini said he is still feeling the effects. He also has colleagues stuck in screening procedures that will delay or end their hopes of studying in the United States.

Starting this summer, a new federal policy requires all foreign students to register into a tracking system. Another change also requires U.S. consulates to conduct a mandatory interview with foreign students who need visas.

Nasiri-Amini said once per year, the United States requires him to discuss his activities with federal authorities. He also worries that if he visits home, there might be long delays in getting a visa to return to the United States.

University officials said the entry screening process is becoming so time consuming and frustrating that they are worried about losing potential foreign students to other English-speaking countries.

“I hope other countries don’t take all our students,” said Kay Thomas, director of International Student and Scholar Services.

The University might be seeing effects from the new federal policy already. Andrea Scott, the director of admissions for the Graduate School, said the University experienced a 21 percent decline in incoming foreign graduate students last year.

Scott said she has heard several discussions about students choosing schools in Canada and Great Britain.

Having fewer international students can lead to fewer teaching assistantships, less research and ultimately less diversity, Scott said.

In order to study in the country, all international students now must register into the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System.

As expected, the new system is having some problems keeping up with the high number of applicants. The SEVIS helpline receives 400 to 900 phone calls each day claiming registration-related problems, Scott said.

Students who are not registered into SEVIS cannot receive visas, further delaying their study plans.

Starting in August, all international students must undergo a mandatory interview at his or her U.S. consulate office before receiving a visa. Previously, consulate officers could waive the interviews.

“It’s a huge inquisition for thousands of students,” Thomas said.

Department of Homeland Security and State Department officials have said they believe the new restriction fills holes in the terrorist prevention net by adding another screening point for catching dangerous individuals.

Aerospace engineering professor Gary Balas said at least half of graduate students working in his department come from outside the country.

“The only way you can be a top university is to be able to attract people from around the world,” Balas said.

He said he has been in contact with four international students who would like to work with him. Three have been denied visas for the fall semester.

He said he wishes the process worked better, but he will just work with fewer students than he would prefer.

Branden Peterson welcomes comments at [email protected]