Visa delays frustrate foreign students

A year ago, Tony Abi-Salloum got a visa in four days to study graduate physics at Philadelphia’s Drexel University.

This year it took the Lebanese man two and a half months _ so long that he was stuck in Beirut the day his classmates took the annual qualifying exam for a doctorate.

Hundreds if not thousands of foreign students returning to U.S. universities or enrolling for the first time have been locked out of fall classes because new security checks are causing visa delays, officials said.

The majority of students affected – some of whom remain stranded at home without visas – are men from predominantly Islamic states who waited months before approved well into the school year, university officials said in interviews.

The delays are an unintended consequence of new guidelines created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. All 19 of the men involved in last year’s attacks in Washington and New York had entered the country with visas.

In the past, most visa applications were reviewed entirely by embassy officials, said Stuart Patt, a State Department spokesman. Under procedures imposed this year, embassies must send many applications – mostly those from 33 nations of particular interest – to Washington for review by intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies.

The State Department acknowledged the backlog. It said in late September it had whittled the lag time to a month.

Some university officials, however, fear the unprecedented delays have stoked anti-Americanism and soured full-tuition-paying students on a U.S. education. Already, they say, students and their affluent sponsors are choosing other English-speaking countries as an alternative.

“We all recognize at universities that it’s really important to make sure that issues of safety and security are looked at closely,” said Shalini Bhutani, director of international student and scholar services for the University of Pennsylvania, where 17 percent of 22,326 students were foreign students last year.

“We need to make certain that we do not turn our international students away from the United States,” Bhutani said. “I think that they are our best diplomatic tool.”

Several thousand students have likely been affected nationwide, said Larry Bell, chairman of the consular affairs working group at NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

“I think it’s very prevalent,” said Bell. “I would even call it widespread … institutions all across the country and of all types of sizes are having similar problems.”

A formal survey of colleges and universities will be completed within six weeks, he said.

At Penn this fall, 18 students – all men and most from Islamic countries – missed classes because of delays, Bhutani said.

At Penn State University, 42 students – all men from Islamic countries – missed fall classes because of delays, said Jim Lynch, director of international students and scholars.

At Rutgers University in New Jersey, about 10 students and visiting scholars missed school, said Marcy Cohen, director of the Center for International Faculty and Student Services. The delays mostly hit Pakistanis who had been accepted into graduate programs, Cohen said.

“We had a visiting scholar from Siberia,” Cohen said. “He was only coming for a two-month stay. His planned visit was over before the visa was issued.”

The delays have resulted from several changes that went into effect during the year as the government has sought to better screen everyone entering the United States with visas.

In addition to the standard application form, all men this year between the ages of 16 and 45 are required to complete a new supplementary form, Patt said.

The one-page form seeks out “what kind of associations a person belongs to, asks if they have any specialized training in certain scientific fields, where they’ve lived,” Patt said.

Completion of that form could trigger the most onerous new procedure: security reviews by a network of federal agencies.

Under the intensive screenings, known as “Visas Condor,” all applicants from seven countries declared to be sponsors of international terrorism – Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, North Korea, Cuba and Syria – must undergo security clearance in Washington, Patt said.

Everywhere else in the world, consular officials must decide on a case-by-case basis, using new guidelines that have not been made public, whether to send forms to Washington for security checks, Patt said.

The State Department would not disclose criteria used in imposing security reviews. But a large number are being done on nationals from 26 countries, which Patt would not name but described as “places for which we have some special interest in national security.”

The State Department increased visa security checks soon after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But it wasn’t until President Bush in May signed the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act that the tighter procedures were fully implemented by embassies.

That coincided with the busy spring visa season. Hordes of student and visitor applications – the State Department did not say how many – were sent to Washington. Names were being run through multi-agency name databases that had doubled to 14 million since Sept. 11, 2001.

Foreign students account for 2 percent, or about 500,000, of all nonimmigrant visas issued annually. The nascent bureaucratic apparatus could not handle the volume, Patt said.

At first, embassies were allowed to issue visas after 30 days if they had not heard back from Washington. But on July 1, the State Department rescinded that allowance, Patt said.

A Pakistani student attending Penn was issued a visa early in the year, but had it revoked in late spring, Bhutani said. “They told him they needed to reconsider his case,” she said.

Abi-Salloum – one of a handful of affected students at Drexel University – applied for a new visa July 9 in Beirut and was told to pick it up Aug. 13.

The visa finally came through Sept. 20 – the day of his qualifying exam for a doctorate. But under another new procedure, begun in September, Drexel officials had to confirm with the embassy Abi-Salloum’s student status before issuing the visa.

While difficult, the delays are understandable after the Sept. 11 attacks, he said. “People died and much worse,” he said. “This is just a qualifying exam. I’ll make it next year.”

The State Department in late September issued a memo stating it had authorized a batch of 10,000 visas at once and said the process had been refined.

Penn’s Bhutani said she has received no assurance that similar delays will be averted next year. “In the meantime, the school year has begun and some of them are looking to go to other universities in other countries,” Bhutani said.

That already has occurred at Penn State.

Six students from Saudi Arabia – four of them returning undergrads _ missed fall classes. Their sponsor, oil company Saudi Aramco, sent the two freshmen to a British college as a result, said Penn State’s Lynch.

“The economy of Great Britain is earning their money,” Lynch said.

Penn State junior Basil Al Essa is among the four in limbo. The Saudi engineering major applied for his new visa in July and has not yet been approved.

“I’m frustrated,” Al Essa said this week from Riyadh. “I don’t know what to do.”