The U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Research and Science Education  heard recommendations Thursday for easing the visa process for foreign students and scholars in its first hearing on the subject  since 2004. “Happily,” said the committee chairman, Rep. Brian Baird  (D-Wash.), “there’s been progress in the interim. That progress is gratifying, but also we’ll hear today constructive suggestions for improvement.”
Foreign student enrollment is again increasing in the United States  – by 3.2 percent in 2006-7 over the previous year, according to Institute of International Education data – after dramatic post-September 11 drops. In his testimony , Stephen A. “Tony” Edson, deputy assistant secretary of state for visa service, said that the U.S. Department of State issued 10 percent more business, student and exchange visitor visas in 2007 than in 2006. And in cities known for sending large numbers of students to the U.S., like Beijing and Mumbai, the number of student visas processed in 2007 over 2006 grew by 38 and 55 percent, respectively. “We’re working diligently to streamline the process,” Edson said, stressing the need to foster exchange while upholding a commitment to national security.
To that effect, Edson explained several steps the department has taken, including new guidelines issued in January letting consular officers waive the interview requirement for some categories of visa renewal applicants who already have their fingerprints on file and have been through the interview process. Edson also stressed a commitment to reducing processing time and wait time for interviews, which he said is now 30 days or less at 90 percent of locations. Since September of 2001, the federal government has created 570 new consular positions.
Yet, while panelists applauded some of the improvements – the waiver of interviews for some renewal applicants, in particular – they pointed to further improvements needed, on statutory and regulatory levels. Among the suggestions:
- Key among them: the need for the State Department to reissue visas domestically rather than require students and scholars to leave the country for renewal. “We cannot overemphasize the fear that people have in returning home or outside the U.S. to have their visa stamped,” said Catheryn Cotten, director of the international office for Duke University and the Duke Medical Center and Health System. “Once they arrive here, they are very frightened to go back. They’re afraid that this time, they won’t get their visa stamped." In response, the State Department indicated that back in the 1990s, it had allowed some visa renewal applicants -- but never students – to reapply without leaving the country. It stopped doing so in 2004 due to the legislative requirement that visa applicants submit "biometric" information (like fingerprints). “The Department's Inspector General had also called for an end to the program due to concerns about fraud, concerns shared by the Bureau of Consular Affairs and [The Department of Homeland Security.]”
- Panelists also focused on improving foreign students’ experiences at border security checkpoints. (Representative Baird said that DHS officials were invited to Thursday’s hearing, but that witnesses were unavailable.) Allan E. Goodman, IIE’s president and CEO, said that the organization, which administers the Fulbright Program for the State Department, has offered to provide training to Homeland Security border officials relative to international students at no cost to DHS. (The organization offers similar training for consular officers at the Foreign Service Institute.) IIE is waiting on the agency's approval.
- Cotten, of Duke, argued that restrictions on professors and research scholars on J-1 visas limit collaborative research. While she said that the visas allow researchers to stay in the country for up to five years if they participate continuously in the program, if they return to their home country during that time to continue research, they are barred for two years from returning to the United States as scholars.
- Several panelists pointed to the need to revise, or even eliminate, the requirement that student visa applicants prove that they don’t intend to immigrate, citing a lack of clarity and inherent judgment call the question requires of its asker. Edson, of the State Department, said that the requirement has served as an effective screen for barring entry to less serious students who don't speak adequate English or know what they plan to study.
Committee members repeatedly lamented that the issue of improving the visa system for foreign students and scholars gets tied up in the intransigent immigration debates. Clearly a “friendly committee,” in Representative Baird’s words, to the issue as presented through the eyes of the educational establishment, many representatives on the science panel seemed frustrated by the status quo -- despite the State Department’s reported progress.
Acknowledging that perceptions of a burdensome visa process and sometimes humiliating border crossing experience have hurt the United States' ability to attract foreign students, committee members consistently returned to the point that even one horrific incident at airport security can cause severe harm to the United States' reputation. "One anecdote circulates rapidly and widely and tarnishes an entire image," Goodman said.
“I think we are all aware of the impacts that this can have on universities and scientific progress, but the human factor is often overlooked,” said Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Michigan), the ranking member on the committee. He recalled how, during his days studying (nuclear physics) at the University of California at Berkeley, scientists across the country “were eager to get Russian scientists into our nation.”
“And the Soviet government wouldn’t let them go. We thought, ‘This is horrible.’ Now it’s reversed.”