Federal Update: College Groups Ask Secretary of State to Postpone New Interview Requirements for Visa Applicants

On May 21, 2003, the State Department sent a cable to American embassies and consular offices requiring that all visa applicants be personally interviewed. In the wake of 9/11, this seems like a logical security requirement. After all, one of the best ways to fight the“bad guys” is to keep them out of the country in the first place. But what does this new measure mean to colleges, graduate schools and their foreign students?

As it turns out, quite a bit. While foreign students and visiting scholars were always subject to visa interviews, the new requirements mean that every visa applicant, from vacationer to business traveler, must now be interviewed. According to the cable,“Information crucial in identifying those who seek to enter the United States for other-than-legal purposes, including those related to support for or commission of terrorists acts, can sometimes be first obtained in the interview process.”

Of course, this information comes at a price. The State Department acknowledges that these additional interviews will cause backlogs and delays, but gives no additional resources to the process. In fact, the cable clearly states that, “Posts should not, repeat not, use overtime to deal with additional workload requirements but should develop appointment systems and public relations strategies to mitigate as much as possible the impact of these changes.”

With the changes poised to go into effect on August 1st, and no additional resources to meet them, schools and students are already feeling the effects. “Between this delay and the SARS epidemic (which banned public gatherings for test taking in parts of Asia), there is the possibility of a ‘perfect storm’ situation,” says Lance Pressl, vice president of Federal Relations & Public affairs for the Council of Graduate Schools. “Students and visiting scholars may miss the start of the school year.”

The trouble has already started. A Perdue student from India has reported that the earliest he can get an interview is August 21, four days before the August 25 semester start date. If he is approved, this leaves little time for travel arrangements. He, however, is in better shape than a potential MIT student who is reporting that the earliest interview he can schedule is in September.

Obviously, the schools will suffer as well. Pressl lists some pretty impressive statistics: Twenty-four percent of all doctoral students are internationals, with 38 percent in the physical sciences and a whopping 50 percent in engineering. “We have already seen significant decreases in international students applying to our schools,” he says.

As a result, classes can be cancelled, commitments can’t be made to graduate students and grant funding may disappear. “Our schools have a tradition of attracting the best and the brightest,” says M. Matthew Owens, Federal Relations Officer, Association of American Universities. “We need that brain power, and, frankly, this makes it easier for schools in other countries to compete.”

In answer, four groups (The Council of Graduate Schools, The Association of American Universities, The American Council on Education and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges) have composed a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell outlining their concerns and urging a delay of implementing the requirements. The group would also like the new requirements to be phased in gradually by country and security risk rather than all at once.

Will the letter, sent June 17th, delay the implementation of the new visa policy? “Probably not,” says Victor Johnson from NAFSA: Association of International Educators. “I don’t think there is the space for delay in this political climate.”

“I do hope that the State Department will accommodate students and speed up the process,” says Pressl. “But it’s hard to tell. The original cable makes it very clear that there are few exemptions to the interview.”

This is not the first time since 9/11 that foreign students and scholars have had difficulties. Last year saw the implementation of SEVIS or the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System.

Intended to be a fully integrated electronic database, shared by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State, SEVIS has been plagued with technical glitches. “As a result, hundreds, if not thousands, of legitimate students and educators have been denied access to the United States,” says Johnson.

This new cable has the potential to compound the problem. “We will have to monitor the results,” Johnson says. “The State Department insists that the resources are there and we are blowing this out of proportion. Hopefully, they are right and there will not be the massive delays we fear.”

“I believe that the government is listening to us and the bottom doesn’t have to fall out before anyone notices,” says Owens. “We all support the move toward greater security, but we need a system that is efficient, timely and predictable. Students need to know what to expect when they apply for a visa.”

The government powers agree, at least in theory. Secretary Ridge recently said in a speech before the American Association of Universities: “There has been, I think, a notion that we need to do it quickly rather than to do it right…. I assure you we’re going to try to do a lot better job working with you under the time limits that are imposed to avoid these kinds of problems in the future.”

Perhaps Secretary Powell sums up the tightrope walk best when he said, “We can’t win the public diplomacy argument if people think they can’t come here.…We must be the most welcoming nation we can be…. We’ve got to be sensible and find the balance.”

Hopefully the schools will not suffer before that balance is achieved.