Choosing Between Dreams and Family

Iranian students are silently subjected to a convoluted and unfair visa process, argues Adam Weinstein.

November 13, 2018

Over the last 40 years of acrimonious relations between Iran and Washington, the flow of the best and brightest Iranian students to American universities continued. That’s changing. Slow administrative processing, enhanced vetting and an uncertain future under the travel ban are contributing to a double-digit decline in Iranian students.

Applying to study in the United States is a significantly less attractive option for Iranian students than it used to be. While it once represented a one-way ticket to greater personal freedom and economic security, today it is just the first step in an unpredictable process. This keeps talented minds out and threatens to end the only remaining peaceful engagement between the two countries.

The number of Iranian students in America steadily climbed throughout the 1960s and '70s and reached a peak of approximately 50,000 in 1980. It declined rapidly in the decades following Iran’s revolution until it picked up again in 2011. But current visa data tell a clear story: this uptick has all but reversed itself. In 2015, 3,241 F-1 and 820 J-1 visas were issued to Iranians. In 2016, that number dropped to 2,650 F-1 and 846 J-1 visas. And in 2017, Iranians received only 2,201 F-1 and 644 J-1 visas -- a 30 percent decrease. While the visa statistics for 2018 are not yet complete, a comparison of student visas granted in July 2017 with July 2018 shows another 32 percent drop.

The declining numbers do not reflect demand or the national interest. Last year, Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt said, “Iran produces some of the top computer scientists in the world, and I want them here. To be clear, I want them working for Alphabet and Google!” Iranian Americans have helped build Silicon Valley and hold senior positions in companies like Uber and eBay. And the Brookings Institution has long advocated for greater access to visas for Iranian students because it’s found that increased people-to-people contact, in fact, benefits national security. President Obama also saw those benefits and repealed the blanket single-entry visa policy for Iranian students. He pledged to increase “opportunities for educational exchanges so that Iranian students can come to our colleges and universities …” The Trump administration claims to support the Iranian people, but the increasing visa difficulties students face suggests otherwise. These difficulties exist despite the exemption of students from Proclamation 9645, popularly known as the Muslim ban.

What precisely is driving Iranian students away from American universities? Are their visa applications being denied? Are processing times causing students to lose scholarships or miss classes? Perhaps students are self-selecting themselves out of the application pool altogether? The uncertainty of the cause is likely a cause in and of itself.

Accepted Iranian students must first apply for a visa outside the country because there are no formal diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States. That typically means traveling to Dubai, Yerevan or Ankara, which is often a prohibitively expensive endeavor. Many students then find themselves stuck in a visa purgatory of administrative processing that can last months, resulting in their having to begin classes late, defer semesters altogether and, in some cases, lose scholarships.

Students who are lucky enough to receive a visa in the first place are often limited to a single-entry visa, which allows them to stay in the United States on an expired student visa only as long as they are enrolled in classes. As a result, it is not uncommon for Iranian doctoral students to remain for years without ever going home, even for short visits. Family relationships are reduced to Skype and Telegram chats. Meanwhile, the travel ban prevents the families of most Iranian students from visiting or even attending graduation ceremonies. Publicly available information suggests that travel ban waivers are only approved in 2 percent of cases.

To be competitive in the global job market, most students will enroll in optional practical training, or OPT, after graduation. OPT permits foreign students to temporarily work in the United States without applying for an employment visa. Over the last decade, executive actions have lengthened OPT periods in the STEM field to 36 months, which coincided with a 400 percent increase in OPT enrollment from the sciences. OPT offers companies high-skilled and affordable labor while students gain work experience in America, potentially get hired and apply for the coveted H-1B visa. But for Iranian students, this often marks another three years separated from loved ones.

Iranian students on single-entry visas who decide to leave the country and renew their visas place all their hard work in jeopardy. Some students receive a student visa, complete a significant portion of their studies, leave the country to renew their visa and then become stuck in endless months of processing. Other students become separated from their spouses who return home to renew their F-2 (dependent) visa and get entangled in inefficient bureaucracy.

A renewal process that is relatively routine for other students has become a high-stakes gamble for Iranians. Automatic visa revalidation allows the majority of international students to take a trip to Canada, Mexico or certain Caribbean islands and return to the United States with an expired visa as long as the trip is less than 30 days. That would allow Iranian students to meet family in Canada, except they remain one of the four nationalities excluded from this privilege.

Even if an Iranian student manages to receive a multiple-entry visa, renew their visa and wait years to finish their studies, they still face uncertain access to the American job market since the travel ban is in effect. Surveys show that 48 percent of foreign students wish to remain in the United States after graduation. But the difficulties that Iranian student visa holders experience, combined with the travel ban, make it an increasingly undesirable destination. Countries like Great Britain, Germany and Canada offer Iranian students the opportunity of a foreign education without being separated from family or excluded from the job market after graduation.

Those who choose to pursue studies in the United States lose years with loved ones, and the full benefit of their hard work upon graduation is uncertain. But what does America gain or lose? It certainly doesn’t gain security. To this day, no evidence has been presented that Iranian students or the nationalities included in the broader travel ban present a national security risk. Iranians rank in the top 15 most represented foreign nationalities at American universities, but the door is slowly closing for one of the last remaining people-to-people exchanges between the two countries. Iranian students are not included in the text of the travel ban but still feel its impact.

The hardships could easily be rectified with multiple-entry visas, expedited processing for current students and access to visa revalidation. University administrators could immediately ease the hardships of students by contacting lawmakers, reserving previously awarded scholarship money and permitting semester deferrals for those stuck in processing. For this to happen, however, the American people and lawmakers alike must emphatically demand that the United States remains a place that welcomes the world’s most talented students.


Adam Weinstein is a policy associate at the National Iranian American Council. He has contributed to Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, The National Interest and other news-media outlets.


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