Less than two months before their scheduled arrival on campus, student and faculty travel visa applicants anxiously await new immigration screening procedures that could jeopardize their ability to arrive on time for the upcoming fall term.
The situation stems from a pending State Department mandate that requires nearly all visitors to the United States to undergo a personal appearance interview at the time of visa application. As it will significantly increase the percentage of applicants interviewed, the new requirement, set to go into effect Aug. 1, could mean further delays in visa processing. In addition, the length of adjudication of individual cases is often difficult to predict and could be as long as a month.
On June 3, the State Department contacted U.S. consulates asking that they give priority in visa interviews to foreign students and scholars. However, on June 17, four higher education advocacy organizations sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell asking that he postpone the requirement until sufficient resources--additional staff and longer working hours--could be devoted to the effort. It was also suggested that the policy should be phased in gradually by country and security risk rather than all at once.
Maggie McIntosh, associate for federal relations in Johns Hopkins' Office of Federal Relations, said that the university is in full support of the letter, which was signed by the presidents of the American Council on Education, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, the Council of Graduate Schools and the Association of American Universities.
"We are very concerned about the potential backlog [this new regulation] could create, as we feel there are currently not enough resources to conduct these additional interviews in a timely fashion," McIntosh said. "Our fear is that faculty and students who have already been accepted here and have completed all their necessary visa paperwork will be delayed and miss the start of school, or not be able to come at all."
The new policy is part of a push by the State Department and other government agencies--in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001--to scrutinize foreign visitors more closely for the sake of national security. The new personal appearance interview, which takes place in the American consulate in the applicant's home country, requires a lengthy, in-depth interview with the candidate, who could be asked questions concerning his or her family, background and reasons for studying abroad. Previously, a more modest interview was done upon entry to the United States.
According to Nicholas Arrindell, director of the Office of International Student and Scholar Services at Homewood, the additional screening process impacts nearly all internationals who seek to study or work at Johns Hopkins. The university currently has more than 5,000 visiting students, faculty and other scholars enrolled in its academic divisions.
The personal interview can be waived by a consular officer, but only on a case-by-case, discretionary basis for visa applicants who are 16 and younger, 60 and older, or who within one year of the previously issued nonimmigrant visa's expiration are seeking reissuance in the same classification.
Arrindell said that while the university supports the federal government's efforts to strengthen homeland security through the visa issuance process, the prevailing opinion at Johns Hopkins has been that international students and scholars have been inordinately hit by restrictions. This population, according to Arrindell, has already been significantly impacted by the new Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, a rigid tracking system launched earlier this year, and by various homeland security measures that have in some cases considerably slowed down processing times for visas.
Arrindell said that his office has already received a half-dozen calls from faculty and students who have "failed the interview process" because they were not able to sufficiently convince the consular officer that they intended to return to their home country.
Visa denials are not a new phenomena, however, Arrindell said, adding that it's still too early to tell what impact any new regulations will have.
"We've received more visa-related calls than last year at this time, but the number is not high enough to raise an eyebrow," he said. "We'll know more by the middle of July as to just who is coming and who is not."
The letter to Secretary Powell mentions a student from India admitted to Purdue University who was informed recently that the earliest interview appointment he could obtain is Aug. 21, just four days before the start of the school's academic term.
Classes at Johns Hopkins, for nearly all academic divisions, begin the first week of September. McIntosh said that those seeking to come to the university who have not yet scheduled an interview, for whatever reason, have been placed in a precarious situation.
Murray Welsh, director of JHMI's Office of International Services, said that she is aware of international visitors trying to schedule an interview as early as May, realizing there could be significant delays. Welsh said that despite their best efforts, however, the backlog of interviews could be simply too much to overcome. In one worst-case scenario, Welsh said several members of clinical and research programs could be delayed, jeopardizing grants and forcing other members to perform extra duties.
"All we're saying to the government is that if they are going to require this additional step, at least give the consulates and embassies the proper amount of staff to handle the increased number of interviews," she said. "The impact otherwise is, in my opinion, not acceptable. It's just one more reason for a student or scholar not to come to the United States, and that is what has us most concerned. The more barriers you put in place to international education, the more detrimental it is to the ultimate goal of global understanding."
To view the letter sent to Secretary of State Colin Powell, go to www.aau.edu/resources/resources.html. The document is linked under the heading "What's New."