Educators Find Federal Views on Student Visas 'Surprising and Frustrating'

June 01, 2013

While the annual conference of Nafsa: Association of International Educators, which concluded on Friday, was in large measure a celebration of global higher education, there was a dark cloud, centered on student visas.

Whether poison provisions in pending immigration legislation, recent guidelines that could complicate recruitment to English-language or pathways programs, or continuing scrutiny of foreign students in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, student-visa-related issues remain contentious. More than a half-dozen sessions on visa issues during the conference attracted hundreds of attendees—apiece.

One of the most timely topics was new draft rules on conditional admission, issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security just days before the Nafsa meeting began.

Conditional admission is granted to students who meet academic requirements but not linguistic ones, and it has become increasingly popular as colleges recruit a more diverse group of international students who may have more-limited English proficiency. In fact, entire programs, known as pathways programs, have sprung up to allow students to enroll in some college coursework, even as they take English-language classes.

The recently released guidelines, which the Homeland Security Department has characterized as a new interpretation of existing rules, would require colleges to issue separate I-20 forms, the immigration documents needed to apply for student visas, to students who need to improve their English before starting regular academic courses. Only after their English meets required levels will they be granted a second I-20, for academic study.

While some colleges already do issue separate documents, many others do not, and for good reason, they say. Some foreign-government scholarship programs require the single I-20 as evidence a sponsored student has been accepted by a degree program, while many foreign students think a conditional-admission offer will help them get an American visa more easily than if they applied to go to the United States for language study only. And the entire premise of the pathways program is that students do academic and language coursework simultaneously.

Directors of English-language programs are also concerned by language in the proposed guidance that would limit the time a student could spend in a pathways program to just a year. "What happens if a student is making academic progress but needs more time?" asked Patricia Juza, vice president for advocacy at the American Association of Intensive English Programs. Federal agencies, said Ms. Juza, who directs the English-language institute at the City University of New York's Baruch College, "shouldn't be dictating academic policy."

And educators worry about administrative-review times if hundreds of English-language programs have to apply for separate approval to issue visa documents. In a report issued last year, the Government Accountability Office criticized the Student Exchange and Visitor Program, the Homeland Security agency that oversees the student-visa system, for excessive wait times for its routine review of institutions certified to participate in the visa program.

While colleges and language programs have until June 7 to submit comments on the proposed guidelines, they had hoped to get clarity on some of the provisions. Instead, government officials at Nafsa sessions were unable to answer many of their questions, something Ms. Juza called "surprising and frustrating."

Heightened Scrutiny

Another source of frustration for colleges is the additional scrutiny being applied to all international students entering the United States in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. And nothing they heard during the conference is likely to ease that anxiety.

Because front-line border agents do not have real-time access to the federal student-visa database, a Kazakh student who is accused of hiding evidence for one of the bombing suspects was permitted to come into the country even though his status as an international student had been terminated several weeks earlier. As a result, every foreign student now must undergo additional screening, which can take several hours at busy airports and border crossings.

Jeni Best, an official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said during a session that the Homeland Security Department has yet to come up with a technological fix that would allow border agents immediate access to the visa database. Instead, Ms. Best said, ports of entry have been given discretion to find solutions that would make the increased scrutiny "as painless as possible" for international students.

Officials at some airports have been able to review flight manifests and check foreign students against the database before arrival, while others have set up dedicated lines for international students to help speed the process. But some are still referring entering students to secondary screening, Ms. Best said.

After the session, she said she could not predict when a permanent solution would be put in place.

And that timeline is of particular concern to colleges because of an amendment to comprehensive immigration legislation now being considered in the U.S. Congress. Although Nafsa supports the immigration bill, which is expected to be taken up in the Senate in coming weeks, the organization opposes a provision that would suspend all issuance of student visas if the Homeland Security Department cannot find a way within 120 days of the bill's passage to give front-line customs officers immediate access to the visa database.

"In a bill this size, there are some angels and some devils in the details," said Rachel Banks, Nafsa's director of public policy, during a session on federal policy and international education. "That's an extremely harsh penalty to place on students."