Foreign students share tales of visa woes in a post-9/11 world


John Pearson

Postdoctoral fellow Siming Liu has researched black holes and solar physics at Stanford for almost two years. On May 11, he went to China to attend a course on solar plasma processes at the Chinese National Astronomical Observatories. Now he's stuck there, awaiting processing of his visa application, which he submitted May 13 to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. On May 31, he is scheduled to present a paper at the Denver meeting of the American Astronomical Society. It's a date he may have to miss.

"The visa officer who interviewed me believed that my application needed to be scrutinized in Washington because the astronomical research I am doing is related to a few NASA satellites and space telescopes," Liu wrote in an e-mail to Stanford Report. "My interview lasted for less than one minute. The officer only read a letter from my department [Physics] stating briefly my current position and research projects, and reached his decision. He seemed reluctant to understand the detail of my position and research projects and did not think about the consequence of his decision too much. What is more ironic, an officer from the embassy called me the following day and asked me to send them my resume because they do not know why my application should be checked and what to check for. I had my resume with me during the interview. The visa officer never asked for it."

A recent report by the General Accounting Office found that once a visa application is sent to the State Department's Visas Mantis system, an extra security check designed to prevent sensitive technology transfer, the average processing time is 67 days.

Liu is not the only Stanford scholar taking a slow boat to America. A few of the Sept. 11 terrorists were in the United States on expired student visas, and federal efforts to increase national security have many of America's almost 600,000 international students feeling the heat of a visa hell with dire consequences for U.S. scientific, engineering and economic competitiveness. At any given time since 9/11, Stanford is dealing with approximately 10 scholars who have been waiting more than two months to obtain their visas, according to John Pearson, director of the university's Bechtel International Center. Many of the Stanford students interviewed for this article waited five months to two years for their visas -- or are still waiting.

In 2003 at Stanford, international students from 87 countries accounted for only 5 percent of undergraduate students (335 out of 6,731) but a whopping 33 percent of graduate students (2,554 out of 7,608). Applications from international students for graduate study at Stanford have declined by 5 percent over the last two years, Pearson said. Nationally, graduate applications from international students for fall enrollment are down 32 percent, CNN reported last month. Stanford ranks number 30 nationally in the number of international students enrolled, according to the Institute of International Education. The effect of visa delays on Stanford enrollment won't be known until autumn, when classes start, Pearson said.

A snapshot of the visa process

When Stanford applicants accept offers of admission, the university enters their information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) database -- name, citizenship, age, course of study, proof of funding, dependents, permanent address, expected arrival date, expected graduation date. The information goes to the Department of Homeland Security, which the next day issues a document that students must take to the U.S. Embassy in their country (if there is one -- Iranians, for example, have to go to a third country to complete the process). There they fill out more paperwork and are interviewed, after which their applications are accepted, denied or delayed.

More than 90 percent of Stanford's international students are granted visas without delay, Pearson said. Of about 900 new international graduate students admitted each fall, five at most suffer outright visa denial.

In general, those denied visas were unable to convince officials that they would return to their home country, Pearson said. Countries like China have high nonreturn rates, and Stanford is in no position to guarantee a student will return home, Pearson said. The decision to deny a visa is a personal one made by the visa officer. Though there is no right of appeal, students can reapply. In these cases, Stanford has had success writing letters in support of students, who wait until the consulate receives the letter before submitting their second application.

Cases of delay are especially thorny. "We spend a lot of time trying to figure out what happened," Pearson said. Delays tend to be triggered for two reasons. One is if students are from countries on a U.S. list of state "sponsors of terrorism" -- Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, North Korea and Cuba.

"The Department of Petroleum Engineering has a significant number of Islamic students, and we have had a number of problems with them getting visas since 2001," said Petroleum Engineering Department Chair Roland Horne. "In two cases, successful applicants did not get visas in time to join us at the start of the academic year. In one case the student [from Jordan] arrived one quarter later. In a second case the student [from Pakistan] didn't come until the following year. And in a third case [from Iran] he gave up and never came at all. Also, we traditionally have had one or two students per year from Saudi Arabia, but nowadays they don't even bother to apply, under the assumption that they won't get a visa."

The second main trigger of delays is studying subjects on the Technology Alert List: conventional munitions; nuclear technology; rocket systems; chemical engineering, biotechnology and biomedical engineering; remote sensing, imaging and reconnaissance; advanced computer/microelectronic technology; materials technology; information security; laser and directed energy systems technology; sensors/sensor technology; marine technology; robotics; and urban planning.

"We have very little ability to do anything [in such cases of delay]," Pearson said. Typically, if a delay has taken as long as two months, his office contacts the State Department, which has been more successful than congressional offices in obtaining favorable outcomes.

The procedure for dealing with background checks needs improvement, Pearson said. There's no fast-tracking to speed the issuance of a visa for a person who has already been issued a visa in the past. Plus, students from, say, France, Turkey and Japan are issued visas, good for five years, allowing multiple entries. But students from China have visas that last only about six months. If the student later goes home for a personal visit or professional conference, he or she must again apply for a visa -- and risk lengthy delays.

Pearson advises students to carefully consider the need to travel. He emphasizes that the vast majority of students get visa renewals fairly quickly, but that there tend to be more problems with China and Iran. "We have seen Ph.D. programs interrupted," he warns. He advises students to apply for the visa in their home country, if possible, rather than in a third-party country.

Does Stanford flat out advise students not to leave? "We're almost there," Pearson said.

Chinese hardest hit

China is not a sponsor of terrorism, but Chinese students are among the most affected by post-9/11 backlash.

Professor Douglas Osheroff, chair of the Physics Department, had a graduate student from China who missed a full year of study waiting for a visa last year, as well as another student who missed one quarter. When Associate Dean of Research Ann Arvin offered a postdoctoral researcher from China a position in her lab, it took a year for her new recruit to obtain a visa. "We work on viruses, but not on any restricted agents," said Arvin, a professor of pediatrics and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases.

"This is of course a national problem," Osheroff said. "Last year at a chairs conference we learned that the system has no institutional memory, so that students subjected to the harshest scrutiny are likely to have to endure it again whenever they leave the country."

Deyi Hou, a second-year graduate student in environmental engineering from China, waited five months to get his visa. His undergraduate classmate, now a graduate student at Yale studying water resource management, went back to China at the same time Hou did and got her visa with no problem. "So I could only see here arbitrary judgment of the visa officials," Hou wrote to Stanford Report. The delay slowed progress on a Stanford project as well as Hou's doctoral studies. "My supervisor had to admit some other students to do the project, and I had to change my project after I came back."

Hou wrote that his experiences made "a big change in my thinking style and future plan. I was depressed in that I could not continue my effort. It suppressed my curiosity to research. I don't feel [that] the U.S. [is] so friendly since then." Such perceptions hurt the effectiveness of education of international students as one of America's most effective means of diplomacy. It also may hurt the economy, as foreign students contribute $12 billion annually, according to the Institute of International Education.

If he could do it all over again, knowing then what he'd have to go through to study in the United States, would Hou still choose Stanford or would he instead choose a world-class university outside the United States? "I might not choose engineering as my major at the first place," he wrote. "As for Stanford, it is still my favorite. I will never feel regretful to come here."

Chinese scholars not alone

Stanford's post-9/11 woes extend beyond Chinese graduate students. Chemistry Professor Michael Fayer, chair of the graduate admissions committee in chemistry, pointed out several cases of visa troubles concerning European researchers. For one, a German postdoctoral fellow had to go back to Germany three times to renew his visa at the U.S. Embassy there. The system isn't set up for him to renew it in this country. One time he had to be gone three weeks.

"It's nuts -- wastes everybody's time, money and energy," Fayer said. "We used to cherry-pick the most talented people. We want them to stay because they're the best minds in the world. ... We're shooting ourselves in the foot, or more likely in the head. We're hassling them to death, and we're losing talent."

On May 12, more than 20 science, engineering and higher-education groups representing about 95 percent of the American research community urged the federal government to take steps to ease visa hassles.

Meanwhile, while astrophysicist Liu cools his heels in China, fall term applications from international students are down at Stanford and all other Ivy Plus schools. The decline has been especially steep for applications from China, which have dropped in some cases as much as 40 percent. America's loss has been Canada, Australia and England's gain, as these countries have seen a significant rise in applications.