Foreign students face visa difficulties

by Josh Verges

Electrical engineering graduate student Tina Sarabandi hasn’t seen her parents since she left Iran for the University four years ago.

If she leaves the country, she might not be allowed to return, she said. Two of her friends are still in Iran awaiting clearance to return to the University. One has been waiting for more than a year.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, international students have found getting into the United States increasingly difficult. The Department of Homeland Security created the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) for use beginning in the fall of 2003 to electronically track international students.

A drop in international student applications is because of student tracking demands from the Department of Homeland Security, said Andrea Scott, the University’s Graduate School admissions director. The changes have made getting into and staying in the country more expensive and time-consuming, she said.

International student applications to the University graduate school are down 18 percent from last year, Scott said.

Three out of four international students at the University are graduate students, she said.

Since colleges and universities began using the system, the federal government has had access to where students live and work as well as the classes they take.

“The United States is not sending a welcoming message overseas,” Scott said.

She said visa delays and slow security processing by embassies overseas mean many international students wait up to three months before receiving their visas. In the past, she said students usually received their visas in one month.

University-system director of the Office of International Programs Gene Allen said universities in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom are recruiting students on their quick and easy admission procedures.

“It puts us in a very unfavorable situation in competing with other countries for students,” Allen said.

Unable to return

Students such as Sarabandi have skipped vacations because they fear if they go home, they will not be able to return to the United States in time for school.

Scott said 19 University students were stuck in China, Vietnam, Iran and Brazil as of Jan. 29, unable to return to school because of delayed or rejected visas.

When Sarabandi’s ill grandfather visited her brother in California earlier this month, she took a flight to see him. A week into her visit, the University called Sarabandi warning she could be deported unless she completed an exception form.

Allen said it is illogical to target students and scholars, representing 2 percent of foreign visitors.

“What they’re looking for and trying to track is like finding a needle in a haystack,” Allen said.

Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge reported Monday that SEVIS accepted 300,000 international students for fall semester last year and sent home 200 who were unregistered.

Program problems

First-year graduate student Krishna Vijayaraghavan came to the University from India because it offered the financial support he could not get in other countries. He also liked that there were many Indian students on campus.

Vijayaraghavan said students legally studying in the United States are not dangerous and SEVIS makes international students feel like animals.

“The one who goes through the trouble (to get a legal visa) isn’t going to do anything,” he said.

Campus-level director of Office of International Programs Kay Thomas said the software used to input information is slow, and the International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) staff spends much of its time on SEVIS compliance.

“Figuring out how to advise students is getting trickier,” she said. “We’ve cut down on a lot of the personal counseling,” which was a unique strength at the University.

Instead, Thomas said ISSS staff now works mostly on updating the records for the University’s 4,500 international students, answering questions, and training staff and students.

Ridge acknowledged in a speech last year to the Association of American Universities that there are technological problems with SEVIS .

But he said it is important that the Department of Homeland Security and higher education continue to work together in the interest of national security.

“We must secure our free republic from those who seek to destroy it,” he said last year. “And universities can help.”

The security cost

Ridge introduced a bill last year that would charge all international students a $100 fee collected for the federal government by universities to help pay for SEVIS.

The NAFSA: Association of International Educators and other higher education officials have protested the fee, saying it is too high and should be collected by the State Department.

Allen said cooperation between universities and the Department of Homeland Security puts the schools in a difficult situation.

“It leads to confusion between education and regulation,” he said.

Some universities have charged their international students fees to cover staff time spent keeping students in compliance.

Allen said computers, programming and employee overtime cost the University approximately $500,000 to get SEVIS running last fall.

The University has charged its international students $50 per semester since fall 2002 for services unique to them. But Allen said the University has not considered charging an additional fee to help with SEVIS costs specifically.