U. Arkansas international students feel visa pressures

FBy Amber Hutchinson
Arkansas Traveler
University of Arkansas

fAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (U-WIRE) – A huge slice of America has changed, not withstanding tighter background checks and visa restrictions for international students studying on U.S. soil.

Government legislation directed the Immigration and Naturalization Service to establish a nationwide electronics system to collect information pertaining to foreign students, scholars and exchange visitors by January 2003.

The legislation is section 641 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996.

Although system development fell behind schedule, the Sept. 11 attacks reinforced the mandate.

And University of Arkansas international students have felt the blow. Prior to the act, the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors worked with INS on the record-keeping transition.

In July, the INS went public with an updated system called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System.

Schools meeting specific requirements could also apply for voluntary preliminary enrollment.

The UA and the UA-affiliated Spring International Language Center met those requirements.

The politics of the day stand as a reminder of all that was lost to Americans last year, and programs such as SEVIS and government background checks may prove formidable for Americans and international students alike.

While SEVIS is a Web-based information server directly connected to INS, the tedious task of entering student data in the database can be just as exhausting as paperwork.

All changes for an international student must be reported to the International Programs Office, where they are entered in the system.

Pertinent changes include phone number, address, academic major and standings. The majority of INS tracking at the UA is done through IPO.

From an admissions standpoint, initial student data is entered in SEVIS so the Office of Admissions can issue an I-20 form.

Students must then take that form to the consulate in their homeland to obtain a student visa for the United States.

For students like Carol Monteiro from Brazil, the task of obtaining the necessary paperwork is the biggest headache.

When Monteiro was admitted to the UA, the last thing she expected was to have to return home, at her own expense, to get her F1 (student) visa.

“I lost two weeks of classes,” Monteiro said. “I spent a lot of money and time. It wasn’t a good start for me.”

Though embassies constantly update the UA on policy and procedural changes, stronger demands from the U.S. government have choked the authority universities have regarding visa approvals.

Visa restrictions have heightened during the last month. Background checks take longer to complete.

Students from Malaysia and the Middle East are the hardest hit regarding background checks.

Though a large part is because of tensions with the United States, data systems for those countries, as well as in other parts of the world, must be reviewed and updated.

“Visas are harder to get,” Spring International Director Vicki Bergman Lanier said.

“We have a larger number of denials, and they’re up for every country in the world, not just the Middle East.”

As denials increase, international student enrollment decreases. Intensive English programs across the nation have seen decreases ranging from 25 to 60 percent.

Enrollment at Spring International has decreased 30 percent, Lanier said.

In the past week, 10 Vietnamese students have been denied visas to attend the UA. Several students from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are still waiting to return to campus after they spent the summer holiday at home.

Some students may have to wait until January before they’re allowed back.