The impact of visa restrictions on foreign visitors in the wake of
9/11 is a subject that continues to receive scrutiny by Congress and
other interested groups. A number of different congressional committees
have held hearings on this topic. In addition, a recent survey by the
American Institute of Physics estimates that last fall, approximately
one-fifth of foreign students admitted to physics graduate programs
in the US were prevented, at least initially, from attending due to
AIP SURVEY OF GRADUATE PHYSICS DEPARTMENTS: According to a new
survey of US graduate physics departments by AIP's Statistical Research
Center, "it appears that about 20% of admitted foreign students
were at least initially prevented from attending" graduate physics
programs in the fall of 2002. The report, "Physics Students From
Abroad in the Post-9/11 Era" (which can be read at http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/undtrends.htm),
also finds that "many departments report major effects on course
enrollments, and on their ability to fill openings" for research
and teaching assistants.
According to the report, tales of international students "running
into greater difficulty when first trying to enter the country, or when
re-entering after traveling abroad," first reached the authors
soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks. After recent AIP surveys
of students enrollments showed "two consecutive decreases in the
number of foreign citizens among entering physics students," AIP's
Statistical Research Center in early 2003 conducted a targeted survey
of physics graduate programs across the country, with 72% of all departments
responding. The survey found that while the number of applications from
international students remain "relatively stable and considerable
in number," these application numbers are not reflected in attendance:
"In the past year, two-thirds of the PhD-granting departments,
and almost half of the Masters departments, report that they have accepted
foreign students who were unable to attend because of visa difficulties."
"While this phenomenon was not unknown in earlier years,"
the report says, "it has definitely worsened in the post-9/11 era....
The increased vigilance seemed to be a product of a more broadly applied
tightening of the regulations governing immigration and visa-granting,
rather than a particular targeting of students from countries viewed
as harboring groups antagonistic to the US."
"By comparing the number of visa denials reported by [physics]
departments with the number of foreign students who entered the affected
programs in the same year," the report arrives at "an overall
estimate that about a fifth of foreign applicants who were accepted
and scheduled to enter the US during 2002 were denied entry into the
US. Of course, some of these students may reapply and eventually gain
entrance to the US and to the physics program into which they were accepted.
Nevertheless, the fraction affected is substantial, and the impact will
disrupt not only the plans of the affected students, but also the planning
of many graduate physics programs in this country." The report
adds, "many departments also reported in their comments that a
number of continuing graduate students who had left the country for
vacation, conferences, or family emergencies were at least initially,
and often permanently, prevented from re-entering this country. Several
complained that this was even more damaging to students and the program
than the difficulties faced by new graduate students, because it led
to greater disruption of ongoing work and living arrangements, and,
in the worst cases, resulted in derailed careers and years of wasted
effort on the part of all involved."
HOUSE GOVERNMENT REFORM COMMITTEE HEARING: One of the most recent
congressional hearings on this subject was held on July 10 by the House
Government Reform Committee. Before a standing-room-only audience in
one of the larger hearings rooms on Capitol Hill, committee chairman
Thomas Davis (R-VA) and Ranking Minority Member Henry Waxman (D-CA)
received testimony on visa and passport problems and steps that are
being taken to resolve them.
Davis opened this hearing by explaining that delays in the processing
of visas are the second-largest source of constituent requests for assistance.
He spoke of what he termed needless delays in the processing of visas,
while acknowledging that "homeland security is our top priority."
Davis sought guidance from the witnesses on how to reduce visa delays
without reducing security. Most discussion centered on the impact of
the new procedures on American business and tourism, although there
was brief discussion about problems encountered by students and researchers.
As an example, Davis described how appointments for required in-person
visa interviews in India were no longer being made because of the backlog,
saying this would have a deleterious effect on high-technology workers.
Waxman's comments were of a similar nature, as he spoke of the need
to strike a balance between openness and security. He spoke, as did
Davis, of how pending tighter security regulations could be a "recipe
for disaster" if the State Department is unable to streamline its
The witnesses from the State Department, Department of Homeland Security
and the FBI acknowledged that lengthy delays were common in the months
immediately after September 2001 as stricter procedures were implemented.
They described the United States as safer with these procedures in place,
and cited statistics demonstrating that delays had been reduced for
the large majority of visitors. Janice Jacobs of the State Department
spoke of the benefits to the United States provided by foreign students
and high-technology workers, and said that the department was "determined"
to see that these benefits continue. While much has changed in the State
Department's visa processing procedures and staffing, Jacobs admitted
that many visitors feel that little has changed to reduce processing
delays. Considerable support was expressed for the advantages of machine-readable
passports that will be required in the near future. Yet, major challenges
will remain. For instance, the FBI now maintains records in 265 locations
around the world, and is striving to implement a records system that
will make it far easier and faster to access this information.