Visas burden applicants, hamper relations with U.S.

Amy Hamblin

The United States could be creating a greater national security threat and damaging its image abroad by increasing restrictions for international students, a Northwestern official said.

“The perception is that the U.S. has become an inhospitable place,” said Ravi Shankar, director of NU’s International Office. “It’s important to understand that national security is at stake.”

Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a government-operated database that tracks students from foreign countries has been created and visa applications receive more strict review, Shankar said.

Students majoring in science or math from some Muslim countries, for example, are often subjected to a more thorough and time-consuming background check, Shankar said. He added that one student waited almost a year for his visa approval.

There was a slight dip in international student enrollment at NU this year, following a national trend, according to Rebecca Dixon, associate provost for university enrollment.

Some are concerned that “regulatory roadblocks” are not only deterring some students from coming to the United States, but might also be shaping their opinions of the country, said Ursula Oaks, a spokeswoman for the Association of International Educators.

“After Sept. 11 there was a really strong demand for heightened security measures,” Oaks said. “Over the last three years, they have really multiplied and come to be in their totality — although not intentionally — a significant barrier for international exchange.”

Although the State Department is working to accelerate the process, the typical wait for student visa clearance is 67 days, according to the federal Government Accountability Office. Normal visa clearance for tourists and business travelers takes up to four weeks.

Singapore native Darren Shi said applying for a visa in his country is a “smooth process,” most likely because the country has a good relationship with the United States. He added that America needs to make the process as simple in all countries.

“It’s a diplomatic investment on the part of the U.S.,” said Shi, a Weinberg sophomore. “If (international students) study in America, they will become the leaders of their country.”

Students applying for visas must go to a U.S. embassy and show a bank statement indicating their ability to fund at least their first year of college. They must also undergo a 90-second interview to determine whether or not they will return to their home country after graduation.

The short interview can make the decision to approve or deny the visa fairly arbitrary, said Seni Sulyman, a McCormick junior originally from Nigeria.

Sulyman said he was first rejected for his visa. He later returned with the same documentation and a different person approved it.

Some of his friends had to go to the embassy for four months until an officer approved their visas, he said.

“Sometimes people don’t have all the time in the world,” Sulyman said. “I think they are going to become fed–up.”

He added that many students who don’t get approved the first time become frustrated and discouraged by the “tedious process.” If the application procedures are not modified, he said, some of these students might opt to go to a school in Europe or to stay in their home country.

If students choose that option, American colleges will face greater problems than decreased enrollment, said Shankar, NU’s international office director.

“The only way to reduce hostility is to open up exchange, discourse and understanding,” Shankar said. “We need to keep this an open society.”

Reach Amy Hamblin at [email protected].