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Terrorism puts foreign
students in spotlight

Last month, in the first of this Geotimes series on conducting science after September 11, researchers in the geoscience community spoke out on the challenges new visa restrictions pose for many international colleagues traveling to the United States for short-term visits. This month: the big changes confronting the foreign student community in the United States.

At about noon on Feb. 26, 1993, Jordanian national Eyad Ismoil drove a truck filled with explosives into the World Trade Center. In this terrorist attack, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000, Ismoil became a symbol for many of what was wrong with the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (INS) system for tracking international students. Ismoil had entered the United States in 1989 on a student visa to attend Wichita State University in Kansas. After three semesters, he dropped out of school and became a terrorist.

With Ismoil in mind, in 1996, Congress passed a law requiring that INS electronically track all foreign students in the United States. The system all but fell through the cracks until the events of September 11. After finding that three of the suspected hijackers were aliens in the United States on student visas, the government revived its efforts to crack down on students entering the country and to implement as expediently as possible the electronic tracking system, the Student and Exchange Visitor and Information System (SEVIS), for all universities that accept foreign students.

Anti-terrorism legislation over the past year-and-a-half outlined the specifications for SEVIS and created a Jan. 30, 2003, compliance date. SEVIS will track a number of pieces of information about a foreign student, including the obvious: date of birth, country of origin, address and enrollment date; and the less obvious: if the student has dropped below a full course of study, failed to enroll, graduated early or undergone any disciplinary action from the school.

In 1999, INS issued 31.4 million non-immigrant visas. Of that number, approximately 560,000 were educational visas and 10,000 were for short-term vocational training.

“Student visas represent a really small number of the total visas issued,” says Chris Simmons, assistant director for government relations at the American Council of Education. “Right after September 11, 2001, there was a lot of movement in Congress to put a moratorium on student visas. One of the reasons students are susceptible to so much scrutiny is that they are a small number that you can start to get your hands around.”

SEVIS, he says, is really a testing ground for tracking other kinds of visas. But in the early weeks of January, with that compliance deadline for SEVIS rapidly approaching, many universities were finding themselves uncertain of the weeks ahead.

The start of SEVIS is coming after a year of universities dealing with increased student visa delays and denials. The combined effect of SEVIS and tighter visa restrictions is creating high stress for universities and for the students themselves, says John Pearson, director of the Bechtel International Center at Stanford University. For the geosciences, in particular, this increased anxiety among students and staff is affecting the earth science departments, which already are facing a dearth of domestic graduate students.

“There’s a more fundamental problem for geosciences, which is that in geoscience departments, the demand for geoscientists at the graduate level and even the undergraduate level is so much lower than it used to be; there’s already a struggle,” says Don Paul, vice president and chief technology officer of ChevronTexaco, and a member of advisory boards at Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And now with a new infrastructure to support changing visa regulations, he says, the costs to universities are high. “If you’re a big company, and you do it for a living, you take it in stride and you’re spreading it over hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of people, so you can afford that infrastructure. But a geoscience department trying to do it for three students is a different story.”

At Stanford, the implementation of SEVIS is posing a huge cost, mostly from information technology (IT) support. “With salaries, and the kind of IT support, between now and later, I think you’re looking, over the course of a year, at somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000,” Pearson says, which is a substantial addition.

The additional burden for students is coming in the form of increased visa delays. Like researchers applying for short-term visas for conferences, foreign students must go through their country’s consular office and then a State Department background check before being issued a visa. Since September 11, this process has become much lengthier with increased scrutiny and a necessary response from the State Department on each application (Geotimes, February 2003).

For students, the stakes are high. With the new rules in place, increasing numbers of students are having to defer starting class, and risk being trapped in their home countries, unable to return to school after university breaks.

“In the fall, between 30 and 40 students, mainly new students, but not all new students, were delayed overseas because of visa background checks, out of about 900 new students,” Pearson says. Out of that number, about five never received visas, and many more students had to defer to winter quarter. The visa delays and denials cross all disciplines, he says, but mostly affect the sciences.

Stanford is not alone. At the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Laurie Holbrook, student affairs officer for the Department of Earth and Space Sciences, says that this year is the first in her three years in the department, and the first that she knows of, in which earth science students have experienced visa delays. As of the end of January, the department was still waiting for the arrival of two geophysics graduate students. In a small geoscience department, two students really make a difference, Holbrook says. The students and their advisors are eagerly awaiting good news. Although the waiting is taking its toll on the frustrated department, Holbrook says that they support the government’s increased vigilance in checking out students.

Pearson worries most about the general mood among foreign students at Stanford. “If you look at the number of people, it’s quite small. But if you look at the kind of sense of uncertainty that is spread around to the general student population, it is an important issue,” he says.

The university is changing the way it communicates with its students and is facing tough advising decisions, such as whether or not they should deter foreign students from going home on breaks and how long is too long before the university should not allow a delayed student to begin classes.
It’s a lot of changes at once, Pearson says, and universities across the board are simply not prepared. Simmons agrees, saying that the American Council of Education is particularly concerned about the operational workings of the new tracking system. “We’re still trying to figure out exactly how the SEVIS program will interact with the computer systems on campus, and just exactly what needs to be done by certain dates.”

Simmons adds: “I think institutions are extremely concerned about students thinking that the hassle of studying in the United States is not worth it. So, they will go to England, Canada, Germany, France or Australia. And those countries have invested a lot of money and time into recruiting students internationally.”

At UCLA, though, it’s full-steam ahead. Holbrook says that the earth and space science department has not seen any decrease in foreign graduate student applicants. “Visa problems aside, applications are up and we’re proceeding along.”

Lisa M. Pinsker


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