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New Guidelines Outline Response to Visa Delays

By Beckett W. Sterner


Anticipating the potential consequences of a more stringent government visa policy for international students, a group of deans at MIT has completed a set of guidelines for how faculty should deal with international graduate students stuck outside the country due to delayed visas.

The guidelines attempt to work within the current procedures at MIT for short-term absences, Dean for Graduate Students Isaac M. Colbert said, but they leave the final decision to a case by case analysis. Long delays could mean a student loses a teaching assistantship or has matriculation postponed until the following year.

The guidelines distinguish between students delayed less than 60 days and those delayed for longer periods.

“Faculty are very generous on the whole with their students,” Colbert said, and “this policy gives them the maximum flexibility to use their resources” to help students unable to return to classwork on time.

He said that of the 2,800 international graduate and undergraduate students at MIT, only about 100 have seen delays so far because of slow visa approval. “We want departments to have guidelines in advance” of a problem, he said, and the intent is to “anticipate problems.”

Reasons for visa delays unspecified

Currently, the specific reasons a visa approval could be held up are unclear. “A visa delay of days or weeks may be triggered by anything that a border agent deems to be unusual, ‘suspicious’ or otherwise warranting further scrutiny,” according to a report describing MIT’s guidelines. If the student is from one of the twenty nations subject to a “special registration” process, or if an application is sent to the U.S. State Department for administrative review, it can take months for the visa to be approved.

A student put under administrative review will often have to submit further information to the government, for example a transcript of classes taken at MIT.

Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook, director of the International Students Office, said that the reasons an application will be reviewed may be a combination of excessive travel and belonging to certain organizations.

Guichard-Ashbrook said she would “presume what [classes] you’re taking is a factor.” Nuclear engineering and cryptography have been cited as classes that might arouse suspicion.

She said that students in the nuclear engineering department run a higher risk of administrative review, but the State Department has also investigated “students from seemingly innocuous fields.”

Faculty have final decision on help

Instead of a response to a specific event or large problem, Colbert said, the guidelines are meant as “a heads-up for departments” before a problem emerges. In the areas of registration, research positions, and health care, the report leaves the faculty significant room for deciding how to handle a student’s case.

Biology Department Head Robert T. Sauer said that students’ being unable to return promptly had not become a large issue for the Biology Department and that the issue had not yet required a systematic process.

Brian E. Canavan, academic administrator for the Physics Department, said that there had been “very few incidents” of delayed students in physics, and all of them were short-term hold ups. The department would deal with the issue on “a case by case basis,” he said, and “we are very open to working with students.”

“To my knowledge, I don’t think we’ve had a problem,” said Chemistry Department Head Stephen J. Lippard.

The guidelines report also states that missed housing bills can be spread out over future bills, but housing will not be guaranteed for longer delays or for off-campus leases.