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By Susan Ginsberg
In the post-September 11 reality, our physics departments are getting hammered. Accepted students from overseas are arriving late, are being refused visas on a first or second go-round, and are even choosing to enroll in non-US institutions. According to a survey released by the American Institute of Physics in late June, two-thirds of the PhD-granting departments and almost half of the masters-granting departments in the US have reported severe problems with foreign students who were unable to attend due to problems with their visas. With course enrollments dropping, TA slots going unfilled, and research programs hurting, science departments across the country are beginning to be seriously affected.
Within the APS, visa issues are a top priority. With the March meeting in Montreal, Canada a scant seven months away, determining what steps can be taken to improve the situation takes on an added importance. The Council of the APS recently issued a statement on visa issues, emphasizing the importance of the contributions from foreign-born scientists and engineers to the US scientific enterprise. The APS's Office of International Affairs, headed by Irving Lerch, continues to work with the State Department on many of these issues, and Lerch and the APS's Office of Public Affairs have met with the House Science Committee to discuss the challenges facing the visa process.
The problems associated with international student visas have not gone unnoticed in Washington. Congress has taken an active role in investigating some of these same questions. The House Science Committee has taken the lead by conducting a number of hearings on the role of science and technology in homeland security and continuing issues with visa backlogs and tracking system implementation. John Marburger, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the President's science advisor, assured Congress at one of these hearings that the "Administration is determined not to let terrorism deflect America from its trajectory of world leadership in science."
The Homeland Security Presidential Directive-2 from October 2001, Marburger pointed out, acknowledged that the United States "benefits greatly from international students who study in our country. The United States Government shall continue to foster and support international students." Marburger pledged his office's help in seeing security and openness balanced appropriately.
One of the complications in altering the current situation is that authority for issuing visas, once solely the purview of the State Department, is now split between the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, which now houses the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
While the Administration can count some recent successes in streamlining the visa application process?the State Department claims that about 90% of visas flagged by the presence of certain technical words on the application are now processed within 30 days?a new set of regulations sent out on May 3 may well muddy the waters again. These new guidelines state that, starting August 1 of this year, every visa application from all but a handful of countries will require personal interviews. Although generally applicants with scientific terms on their visa applications were already slated for interviews, the addition of all other types of visa applicants to the long line of interviewees may cause additional delays. The State Department recently reminded its embassies and consulates of the tight timeline for granting students their visas and suggested giving these interviews priority, but, stresses the May 3 regulations, "[diplomatic] posts must implement the new interview guidelines using existing resources."
Delays in granting visas and the resulting unpredictability in graduate student attendance have not been the only challenges plaguing our educational system. Physics department chairs have been extremely concerned about the high rate of visa rejection for Chinese applicants.
Although this problem existed even before September 11, the recent AIP study reveals that Chinese students are the group most commonly denied visas in terms of both raw numbers and percentages. Chinese students suffer high rejection rates on what is called the "214(b)" exclusion.
Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act forbids the granting of a visa to a student who cannot prove that he will return to his country of origin when his studies are done. Chinese students in particular often have trouble with this provision.
The best strategy, advises Lerch, is for each visa applicant to provide documentary proof of factors that indicate an intent to return (such as family members or property left behind). In addition, the educational institution should issue a declaration of its intent to comply fully with the law and not to influence the applicant to stay in the US.
Implementation of SEVIS, the internet-based Student and Exchange Visitor Information System has also run into problems.
This system, designed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to track students and exchange visitors in the country, requires universities to ensure their enrolled students are attending classes.
The deadline for full implementation of SEVIS across the country's colleges and universities has been set for August 1, 2003. The higher education community has recently raised concerns about the difficulty of implementing the SEVIS fee system before the fall semester begins, but quiet indications from the Administration are that the deadlines for the fee system will be relaxed.
The APS Office of Public Affairs in Washington keeps a close eye on the visa issues. Says a spokesperson for the office, "This is a top priority, not just for our members, but for the science community and the country as a whole. We are working closely with other professional organizations to coordinate our efforts and maximize effectiveness."
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