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Foreign Student Visa Process Clumsy

Foreign Student Visa Process Clumsy
And Cumbersome, Educators Say
By Garry Boulard

Visa requirements imposed on foreign students since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are confusing, redundant and causing more problems than they solve, witnesses appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said last month. They noted that if current policy trends continue, many students — particularly those from Middle Eastern countries — may still be waiting for visa approval in their countries of origin even after their academic programs have begun in the United States.
Controls put in place since Sept. 11, 2001, have been done on a mostly piecemeal basis, according to Marlene M. Johnson, executive director of NAFSA, the Association of International Educators.
“In their totality, they are now hindering international student and scholar access to the United States, to an extent that itself threatens our security,” Johnson said.
Because new guidelines from the U.S. Department of State have required U.S. Consulate officials to scrutinize student visas more carefully, through both personal interviews and security checks, what was once a fairly routine process has become, according to many, a cumbersome and time-consuming ordeal frustrating both consulate employees and students.
“Today, far too many scarce human resources are wasted on routine reviews of low-risk visa applications,” Johnson said. “This particularly affects scientists and people from Arab and Muslim countries. Both of these populations are subjected indiscriminately to special reviews. Repetitive, redundant reviews, particularly of well-known people, clog the system, frustrate applicants and detract from our ability to focus our attention where it is really needed.”
Noting that there were more than 586,000 international students studying in the United States last year, Dr. Allan E. Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, contended that because of the new visa restrictions, “consular staff at each U.S. embassy is thinly stretched.”
“They need to assure that their procedures facilitate the handling of visa applicants expeditiously and respectfully, despite heavy caseloads and increased screening requirements,” continued Goodman, who added: “This would send the most important signal that our doors are open to legitimate students from abroad.”
According to the State Department, more than 5.8 million visas are granted every year, 16 percent of which go to students, who come primarily from Asian and Pacific Rim countries. In 2003, visas were granted to more than 74,000 students from India; 64,000 students from China; and 51,000 students from the Republic of Korea. According to IIE statistics, fewer than 6,000 students from all Middle Eastern countries combined were granted visas in 2003.
But those students, contended Dr. Theodore H. Kattouf, president of AMIDEAST Inc., are valuable ambassadors of American goodwill who have “returned to their own countries and assumed senior leadership positions in which they are able to serve as cultural interpreters by virtue of their firsthand perspective on U.S. society.”
Kattouf noted that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the number of “Saudi, Kuwaiti and Bahraini students studying in the U.S. fell by over 25 percent.” Declines have also been noted in the number of students from Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Oman and Egypt, among other Middle Eastern countries.
If these trends continue, Kattouf said, America may risk losing a valuable chance to explain itself to young people from countries that are already deeply suspicious and resentful of American policies in the Middle East.
“Word of mouth is extremely important in the Middle East,” Kattouf said. “Just as many Arabs have chosen U.S. study because their family and friends had positive experiences here years ago, today’s international scholars will one day be recommending universities elsewhere in the world.”
Advocates of a more streamlined student-visa process have already won the tacit support of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who recently said, “We have put in place too many restrictions, and now we have to start backing off on them.”
Last month, Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., proposed a bill that would overturn many of the current restrictions on student visas while making it easier for federal agencies involved in the visa process to communicate with one.

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