Growing concerns over lengthy international student visa delays prompted several U.S. universities and higher education groups to ask the federal government for help.On June 17, the education groups sent letters to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell outlining problems international students face when obtaining visas.
Foreign visitors wanting a visa to travel to the United States must go through an interview with U.S. consulates. Foreign students trying to attend the University can wait months for an interview, which prevents students from starting classes on time. The U.S. State Department, recognizing the delays, sent a memo to consulate offices urging them to get international students through visa screening quickly. University officials and national educators that work with foreign students said the measure is not enough. They say problems with the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System and combined with the mandatory interview policy are still slowing the process.
It's not the answer, said Andrea Scott, a University graduate school admissions director. It's one step.
Scott said there are signs foreign students might choose schools in other English-speaking counties to avoid the new State Department obstacles. According to the University, 3,350 international students enrolled in 2002, most of them graduate students. The Graduate School experienced a 24 percent decrease in international student applications this year compared to last, according to numbers released in April.
Kay Thomas, director of office, said she hears the problems firsthand. We're still getting so many of these calls that people are being held up, Thomas said.
Typically when students receive a University acceptance letter, they go to a U.S. consulate office for a visa interview. The student should already be registered into the SEVIS, the federal international visitor tracking system. But international students are frequently calling the international student services office to report problems getting registered.
International student services advisers looking for assistance call the SEVIS help desk, but they often experience long waits, Thomas said. It's just horrendous. Because that piece doesn't work, it clogs up the phone lines, Thomas said.
Communicating with U.S. consulate offices around the world is difficult as well, said Thomas, especially considering time zone realities. Thomas said the U.S. consulate offices are not answering or returning phone calls because they are so overwhelmed with visa requests. Embassies do not have any more people working on visa interviews causing fewer visa applications to get through the process on time, said Barry Toiv, a spokesman for the Association of American Universities.
There is a greater understanding of the specific difficulties we face, Toiv said. But (U.S. consulates) need more resources.