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International Students Delayed by Visa Rules

By Lakshmi Nambiar


As a result of new security measures and regulations implemented by the U.S. State Department following the events of Sept. 11, the travel plans of 100 new and returning international MIT students were delayed, with 17 students still awaiting visa approval.

One new requirement for male international students between the ages of 16 and 45 requires that when applying for a non-immigrant visa, they must complete a new Supplemental Non-immigrant Visa Application (DS-157), in addition to the standard DS-156 non-immigrant visa application. Students were also required to show that they had strong links to their country of origin and had no intention of abandoning their home country.

Ten new MIT students from China and Iran were denied visas because of “immigrant intent,” rather than due to security clearances. Associate Dean and Director of the International Students Office Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook said “recently, we have seen an increase in the number of visa applicants who have been asked to demonstrate substantial evidence of links to country of origin.”

Visa delays acknowledged

A State Department spokesman told The Boston Globe that visa applications that used to be processed in days are now taking six to eight weeks and longer as officials comb through previously untapped databases of foreigners with possible terrorist connections. Fifteen of the 19 suspected Sept. 11 hijackers entered the United States legally on travel visas; three were admitted with business visas; and one entered on a student visa.

“International students, who sought 335,000 visas between last October and this month, are receiving no more scrutiny than tourists, business travelers, and other applicants,” said spokesperson Stuart Patt in the interview. Seven million visas were requested last year.

“It’s not aimed at students, but students are feeling the pinch because classes are starting,” he said. “We’re trying to get things done as quickly as we can ... Right now national security is the overriding concern.”

More new rules took effect this year on Sept. 11. Until an electronic student-tracking system is put in place by the government next year, universities must post a verification document on a State Department Web site for every international student they admit.

Students from the following countries, by birth or nationality, were told to expect “enhanced security screening,” possibly including an additional 20 days to the visa application process: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Government plans for IPASS

In May 2002, in a Homeland Security Directive, the Bush administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy announced its intention to create a new Interagency Panel on Advancing Science and Security (IPASS) “that will function as a mechanism to provide another level of review for all specialized visas, including student visas,” according to a press release.

“We are optimistic that the IPASS, while mindful of national security concerns, will also be sensitive to the reality that open scientific research and international exchange is a cherished and valuable academic tradition in the US higher educational system,” said Guichard-Ashbrook.

“The problems started in July when the students applied for their visas,” Guichard-Ashbrook said. “The consulates told the students that everything was in order, but that their applications were undergoing a review by the U.S. State Department that would take ‘an indefinite period of time.’ So we were getting calls and e-mails from all these frantic students who couldn’t make their travel plans.”

Internationals increase in number

Across the country, the numbers of student applications are up, and MIT is no exception.

“The surprising thing is that we had all these expectations that the increased security measures in the U.S. and the fear of more attacks would cause a drop in the number of international student applications. But that didn’t happen,” Guichard-Ashbrook said. She expects that once the delays are worked out, the number of international students enrolled this year to increase by 100 from last year.