That was the message from U.S. State Department officials when they called foreign reporters to a briefing this month at which they released statistics indicating that problems with foreign students' visa applications had largely been fixed, and that visa applications and approvals were going up.
"We must continue to let students and scholars know that the American welcome mat is truly out, and we want them to choose America as a place to study,"said Patricia Harrison, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs.
Experts on foreign students said that they agreed that the visa system was improving, but several suggested that federal officials were overstating the extent to which the problems had been solved.
The briefing featured numerous new statistics to back up the statements of officials that they had fixed the problems, which they acknowledged were quite serious, post-9/11.
Among the figures and policies announced at the briefing by Harrison and others:
- 97 percent of the applicants who seek visas, in cases where the visas areapproved, are now getting their visas within one to two days after the approval.
- In cases requiring clearance in Washington because the visa applicant would be working with sensitive technology, the average processing time has dropped from 75 to 14 days in the last year.
- All consular officers have been told to make student visas a priority forinterviews and decisions.
- Complaints have fallen dramatically for the controversial new system fortracking foreign students. In August 2003, thousands of complaints were filed about the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS. In August 2004, there were only 71 complaints.
- The number of visas being issued to Chinese students -- a key group for colleges in the U.S. -- is going up again. During 2003, the U.S. issued 21,786 student visas to Chinese nationals, and last year that number was up to 25,647.
Harrison and others at the briefing spoke with passion about their commitment to foreign students and about how much progress had been made in dealing with visa problems that have led to decreased foreign enrollments at many institutions, and widespread reports of talented foreign students enrolling at colleges in Britain, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere -- instead of those of the United States.
Foreign students "truly represent the best and the brightest, the hope for the future, and every country wants them for very good reason," Harrison said. "In terms of our visa procedures, we're working on two compatible tracks: secure borders and open doors. We want both the American people and those who come to this country to be safe, and we want people of goodwill to continue to choose the United States as the place to study."
International-education officials who have read the transcript of the briefing praise the officials involved for trying to reach foreign students with a message that they are welcome. But they also dispute the idea that the problems are now all solved.
One official, speaking privately, said that State Department officials sincerely want to help foreign students, but that there is a large gap between the statements they made at the briefing and the actual experiences of those seeking visas. Consular officers still feel tremendous pressure to avoid approving a visa that might be questioned, he said.
Victor C. Johnson, associate executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said, "The State Department is clearly trying to get a positive message out, against considerable bureaucratic opposition from other agencies."
He said that he did believe that there had been real improvements in the system, but "we still have a long way to go."
NAFSA has identified numerous problems with the visa system, and solutions that would not compromise security, Johnson said. The organization keeps its list on its Web site, along with the status of progress on these issues, and there are plenty of examples of changes that have yet to be enacted.
Johnson said he also continues to hear reports about visa applicants facing problems. But he said it was hard to sort out which of these reports were recent and which predated some of the improvements that have been made.
He also stressed that the perception problem facing American colleges won't go away with a State Department press briefing. "Everybody who comes back from China these days has stories to tell about people they encounter in schools who told them, 'I'm not going to apply for a visa to study in the United States. You can't get them any more.'"
And visas are only part of the problem, he said. "Every time someone abroad reads a story in the press about a foreign student being detained for six hours without food at an American airport, or about disrespectful treatment at the consulates, it sets us back."
Barry Toiv, director of communications and public affairs for the Association of American Universities, also had a mixed view of the briefing. "We agree with the Administration that progress has been made on visas, and we certainly share the view that international students continue to be important to our country and very much welcome here," he said. "But the reality is that barriers remain and that significant policy and procedural changes are needed. While it is important to convey to international students that they are welcome here, it is equally important to implement needed reforms."
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