Intensified Security Measures Leave Many International Students Stranded

by Robert Sedgwick, Editor, WENR

International Student Statistics for 2001-2002

Number of international students enrolled at U.S. institutions of higher education in 2001-02: 582,996
Top countries: India (with 66,836 students), China (63,211), South Korea (49,046), Japan (46,810), Taiwan (28,930), Canada (26,514), Mexico (12,518), Turkey (12,091), Indonesia (11,614) and Thailand (11,606)
Top regions: Asia (56 percent), Europe (14 percent), Latin America (12 percent), Middle East (7 percent), Africa (6 percent) and North America (5 percent)
Top universities hosting international students: University of Southern California [1] (5,950), New York University [2] (5,504), Columbia University [3] (5,116), Purdue University [4] (4,695), University of Texas [5] at Austin (4,673) and Boston University [6] (4,412)
Amount of money spent by foreign students in the United States on tuition and living expenses in 2001: $12 billion
Most popular fields of study for international students: business and management (20 percent), engineering (15 percent), mathematics and computer science (13 percent)

Source: Open Doors 2002 [7]

Despite concerns of a backlash from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the number of international students coming to the United States for higher education last year grew 6.4 percent over the previous year, according to Open Doors 2002 [7], an annual report on international educational exchanges.

During the 2001-2002 academic year, approximately 583,000 international students attended U.S. institutions of higher education, according to the report, which is published by the Institute of International Education [8] (IIE).

An IIE survey conducted in August also showed that international student applications were up this year, with 70 percent of respondents reporting either an increase or no significant change for 2002-3.

It would appear then that the security clampdown coming in the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington have not seriously impeded the flow of foreign students to the United States as feared.

However, the IIE statistics may be misleading as they were compiled when most foreign students were already enrolled in classes on U.S. soil for the 2001-02 academic year. And while it is true that universities did accept a record number of international students this year, the August report said the schools were not certain exactly how many of those students would actually materialize on their campuses.

The downturn has only begun to show up this fall, when students from overseas attempted to enter or re-enter the country to enroll in the 2002-03 academic year. Independent surveys conducted over the past few months, along with anecdotal evidence, suggest the 6.4 percent growth rate recorded in the Open Doors report has declined by about half.

Many international students who went home for summer vacation or were accepted for the 2002-03 academic year found they were not able to get their visas and re-entry visas in time for the fall semester. Some students have reported delays of up to six months, and many stranded students have had to defer to 2003-04 because it is far too late in the semester to begin the current year. A large number of students were rejected outright even though they had been accepted at U.S. institutions of higher education.

According to a Pakistani newspaper, for instance, several hundred scholars from Pakistan who were selected by their government for university leadership positions, were all accepted at U.S. institutions for graduate studies. Visas were denied for 90 percent of these students.

The University of California-Berkeley [9] reported a noticeable decline in the number of new, foreign graduate students — from 626 in 2001 to 526 this year. Similarly, San Francisco State University [10] said 24 of its international students missed the fall semester because they could not get their visas in time.

Officials at Purdue University [4] said they lost between 40 and 70 students this fall, and in Cambridge, MA 100 new and returning MIT [11] students had their travel plans delayed because of visa delays.

Crackdown on Students

Not surprisingly, there has been a significant drop in the number of Middle Eastern students coming to the United States for higher education. The University of Kansas [12], for example, has 21 stranded students this fall, the majority of them from Saudi Arabia.

Old Dominion University [13], which has one of the highest foreign student enrollments in Virginia, reported a 10 percent drop this year compared with fall 2001. Likewise, most of the absent students are from the Middle East and didn’t receive their visas in time to start school in August.

At the University of Miami [14], four returning students — two from Saudi Arabia, one from Iran and one from Lebanon — were stranded due to visa problems.

A consortium of five universities — Texas A&M University [15], the University of Texas [5], the University of Kansas [12], the University of Tulsa [16], and Colorado School of Mines [17] — reported missing 70 Iranian students this fall. The students had been recruited to study in the United States in cooperation with an Iranian oil company.

Iran is on the State Department’s watch list of countries considered to be state sponsors of terrorism. Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria are also on the list, but students from other Middle Eastern countries, as well as those from Pakistan and Afghanistan, are also being closely scrutinized.

Shortly after the attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act, which gives the federal government far-reaching powers to strictly enforce visa regulations and to arrest and deport those who overstay their welcome. In addition, all institutions of education in the United States are required to start using the government’s Student Exchange Visitor Information System by Aug. 1, 2003. The deadline was originally Jan. 1, 2003 and was extended.

The tightened security measures aimed at international students, in particular Arab and Muslim students, stem from the fact that one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Hani Hanjour (a Lebanese national), entered the country on a student visa. Hanjour was enrolled in an English-language program in California, but never actually showed up for classes.

However, Middle Easterners are not the only ones being blocked. Students from other regions of the world have been experiencing visa problems as well.

Kapiolani Community College [18] (KCC) in Hawaii reports that two of its students, one from Bulgaria and the other from South Korea, were unable to enter the country. “They were refused visas because their interviews with the U.S. consular services did not go well,” said Takashi Miyaki, KCC educational specialist.

“One student from Indonesia has been waiting for an interview with the U.S. visa officer for three to four months,” Miyaki said. “This is too long to wait. I’m noticing that Indonesian students are having a particularly hard time getting visas to study in the U.S.”

At Indiana University [19] (IU) in Bloomington, between 30 and 40 students (mostly from Malaysia) were either denied visas or couldn’t get them in time for the fall semester.

“Their experience has no doubt had a chilling effect on the students, their parents and sponsors and other interested parties in Malaysia,” said Kenneth Rogers, associate dean and director of international services at IU.

“It is all the more regrettable because of the extensive and longstanding collegial relationships that link IU with important and influential agencies, organizations and institutions in Malaysia,” he said.

Chinese students have also been experiencing visa problems. At the University of Connecticut [20], nine students from China were accepted into a graduate research program in physics this fall. All nine them were denied visas by the State Department.

Likewise, the University of Texas [21] at Dallas is missing eight Chinese researchers.

At Michigan State University [22]‘s Department of Statistics, three Chinese teaching assistants expected this fall were unable to get visas. Other institutions across the country report similar losses among their Chinese students.

According to a recent survey conducted by the American Physical Society [23], Chinese students are bearing the brunt of the security crackdown. The survey targeted 185 advanced degree-granting departments from universities around the country; 79 responded. Of the 1,115 students accepted at these departments, 595 were foreign. Of these, 123 were denied visas. The survey found the largest number of denials was for students from mainland China. For the 2002-03 academic year, 291 Chinese students accepted departmental offers and 100 of them (34 percent) were denied entry visas.

There are currently two types of security procedures for issuing nonimmigrant visas to the United States. The first, known as Visa Condor [24], was implemented after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington last year and has been widely publicized. Those affected are predominantly Muslim men between the ages of 16 and 45 who hail from 26 (mostly Islamic) countries. Under this set of rules, consular officials overseas require written approval from Washington for each applicant before they can issue a visa.

The second set of visa regulations, called Visa Mantis [25], is aimed at preventing the theft of U.S. technology from foreign nationals who come to the United States to work and study. These procedures have been on the books for many years but were never strictly enforced. However, starting in July 2002, the federal government began to put these rules into affect.

Many education professionals see a link between the high percentage of Chinese visa denials and the explosive Wen Ho Lee case three years ago and the events leading up to it. Lee, a Taiwan-born U.S. national, was falsely accused of leaking information on the W88 Nuclear Warhead to Chinese scientists. He spent nine months in solitary confinement, and was finally released after pleading guilty to one of the 58 charges brought against him (mishandling classified information). All other charges were dropped with apologies from the presiding judge

“The Wen Ho Lee case has a great deal to do with this,” said Irving Lerch, director of international affairs at the American Physical Society. “It was clear to many of us in the physics community that this was trumped way out of proportion to the danger.”

In November, two Boston-area professors speaking at a panel discussion at Brown University [26] argued that the accusations of espionage brought against Lee in 1999 were symptomatic of the burgeoning anti-China sentiments in the United States at the time. They contend that China was being built up during the 1990s to be the next big enemy.
“There remains an undercurrent of feeling that China is the only power with the potential to challenge the United States in the near future,” said one of the speakers, Nelson Yuan-sheng Kiang, emeritus professor of physiology at Harvard Medical School. “This feeling may translate into many individual acts of harassment.”

Kiang also suggested there were other possible reasons to explain the crackdown on Chinese students. “There may be a selective–perhaps unwritten–policy to refuse or delay visas to young single women from China, presumably because so few subsequently return to China.”

In addition, he said there may indeed be legitimate concerns for national security requiring more complete checks that require time. “The INS has to respond to executive and congressional pressures to increase scrutiny of those entering the country and increased delays are only to be expected.”


Although international students account for a mere 3.5 percent of total higher education enrollments in the United States, they comprise approximately half of all doctoral candidates in engineering and about 35 percent of doctoral students in the physical sciences. Many universities rely heavily on international students as teaching assistants, laboratory technicians and researchers, and the students fill university seats that some say would otherwise be empty.

Moreover, students are not the only ones affected by the recent crackdown. Foreign scientists and engineers are also being blocked, as are scholars invited to speak at conferences, and visiting professors. Critics of the new visa security laws complain that scientific research and international collaborations are suffering as a result, and that many international conferences have either been cancelled or negatively impacted.

“There’s this feeling [in the U.S.] that we’re exporting technology, but in reality, we’re the ones who are gaining by importing intellectual talent,” said Irving Lerch. “The government is ill-equipped to calculate the cost/benefit ratio of international scientific exchange and will probably end up doing far more damage than good unless they adopt more rational, informed policies.”

Lerch and others are quick to point out that many foreign nationals who come to the United States as graduate students and scholars make valuable contributions to their fields thereby benefiting the country as a whole. Recent Nobel Prize winners from MIT, for instance, have included scholars and researchers who were born in India, Italy, Japan, and Mexico. Education professionals worry that curtailing the inflow of foreign brainpower could have dire consequences for academia and the economy.

“In the short term this will cause severe damage to universities, especially those relying heavily on foreign grad students in the physical sciences and engineering,” said William Stwalley, head of the physics department at the University of Connecticut [20].

“In the long term I predict further damage to universities and to U.S. science as foreign students end up studying in other nations instead of here. There could also be severe damage to the economy, especially the computer and high-tech sectors,” he said.

Others are concerned that openness of scientific research, internationalization and accessible education may all end up being sacrificed on the altar of national security.

Victor Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at the National Association of Foreign Students [27], NAFSA, says that the current policy of blocking students is not the way to go about combating terrorism.

“In my lifetime, there has always been a policy fostering educational exchanges to increase understanding between the U.S. and other countries, and to avoid and to mitigate conflicts. Although the idea initially came out of the Cold War, you can apply it to the age of terrorism,” he said.

“When you have these negative, stereotyped views of the U.S., it makes sense to open up more exchanges rather than to close down,” Johnson said.

A statement recently issued by the National Academies [28] calls for a serious reevaluation of the current policy arguing that we need to strike a better balance between national security and educational and scientific exchanges.

“To make our nation safer, it is extremely important that our visa policy not only keep out foreigners who intend to do us harm, but also facilitate the acceptance of those who bring us considerable benefit,” the statement said.

Under the current regulations, overseas consulates are required to send many visa applications to Washington for approval, and it is this long and arduous process that is causing all the backlogs and delays.

“I think that we need to do a much better job of screening [visa applicants],” said Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences [29] and one of the signatories of the statement.

According to the State Department, overall visa demand since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has dropped approximately 20 percent. As of August, nonimmigrant visa demand was down by around 33 percent. To offset the cost of all the extra red tape involved in the screening process, the government raised the nonimmigration visa fee in November from $65 to $100. It was the second fee hike this year. Many education professionals fear that the harsh security measures may end up steering international students away from the United States.

“If the process is too difficult or too expensive or too long or too invasive, it is almost a guarantee that at least some students will consider countries such as Australia or Germany as alternatives,” said Kevin Marvel, deputy executive officer at the American Astronomical Society [30].

International students (most of them from Iran) who had planned to study at the University of Texas but couldn’t get visas in time for the fall semester told the university they would study in Norway, France and England instead.

In fact, there is evidence that, while the United States is bogged down with security procedures, other countries are taking full advantage of the situation. In the United Kingdom there has been a staggering 128 percent increase in the number of Indian student visas this year. According to the British High Commission [31] many of these students would probably have gone to the United States, the preferred study destination for most Indians.

Canada is considering making changes to its visa laws to attract more international students. New immigration rules would allow foreign students to work part time, and would also increase the length of time they can study in Canada without a visa from three to six months. Short-term programs, mostly at English language schools, currently do not require visas.

“In some fields, the U.S. is unquestionably the leader, and students will endure just about anything to study here because they might not end up as well off if they go elsewhere,” Marvel said. “But in many other fields, where you have a one-month visa wait vs. a six-month wait, then yes, many students will go elsewhere.”