Biblioteca: The Changing Nature of U.S. Immigration and Academics

by Aaron Bowen, MLIS Day

Of the myriad of changes that have affected the world as a whole and the United States in particular since the September 11th, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., two of the most visible have been immigration law and border security, particularly in U.S. airports. Obtaining a visa to stay in the U.S. longer than three months has become a more arduous process than before, involving interviews at U.S. embassies in foreign countries and delays and misinformation concerning the visa process. These issues are deterring foreign students from studying in the U.S., prompting them to stay home or study in other foreign countries instead.

This creates a tradeoff between U.S. national security and research that would prove beneficial to the global community, America included. This tradeoff implies that costs incurred by deterring foreign students from studying in the U.S., as well as causing frustration to American schools and professors at these schools who seek the value that foreign students would add to their research, are necessary to maintain national security. While screenings of visa applicants as a blanket group may enhance national security (which The Economist of May 8-14, 2004, disputes), the strength of U.S. national security does not rest principally on this process, and these measures are in no way a substitute for U.S. intelligence operations that specifically target individuals and organizations intent on harming the U.S.

Naturally this begs the question of whether a state has the right and the responsibility to its citizens to protect itself and these same citizens against harmful forces that might seek to penetrate its borders. The answer of course is yes, a state has this right. Furthermore, the U.S. government and its agencies have legitimately enforced border security in the past to apprehend individuals who sought to harm the U.S., as occurred with Ahmed Ressam for example. The issue with foreign students is thus whether the U.S. is justified in imposing stringent restrictions on visa applications that remove or partly remove the added value that these students would bring to America.

This issue is a very new problem that is just beginning to receive national attention in America. Information on the topic is consequently still emerging, but has begun to proliferate in academic and news-related channels of information. Empirical studies such as an American Institute of Physics (AIP) report titled Physics Students from Abroad in the Post-9/11 Era, and a February 2004 General Accounting Office (GAO) report, summarized here, suggest a negligible tangible benefit to enhancing U.S. border security as a result of the Visas Mantis process, the application and interview process required to obtain a student visa to study in the U.S. The GAO report notes that the FBI is aware of the Visas Mantis issue, but recommended that the FBI coordinate with the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to minimize the issue. It remains to be seen if any actions these organizations have taken will produce any genuine effect in reducing visa delays.

The Economist (May 8-14, 2004) sees little value in the mandated interview. It says,

Because consular staffs have not been expanded, this has led to delays of several weeks in order to sit for an interview that often lasts only a few minutes. Such a blanket requirement puts undue stress on both students and consulates, without yielding tangible security benefits. A more focused system makes more sense.
The same article also notes incompatible technologies employed within the DHS, the State Department, and the FBI. It argues that "All manner of businesses use software to segment and understand their customer's behavior. The government's failure to use the same technology is leading to both inefficiency and a decrease in security."

Meanwhile the problems foreign students face entering the U.S. continue, for reasons ranging from a mixture of miscommunication and lack of a clear understanding within the U.S. embassies and consulates abroad of the visa application process, to a lack of clarity concerning the area of study indicated in a visa application (and whether it encompasses research of possible military or strategic value to a foreign country). Dylan Lee Lehrke writes in The UW Daily that UW physics professor Matt Strassler noted the Physics department needed the services of Ari Pankiewicz, a graduate student from Berlin who was held up by a long visa application (Lehrke, 2003a). In another case, a postdoctoral researcher named Tao Hong was delayed nine and one half months in his route to the UW, which in turn delayed research by physics professor Norval Forston, who needed Hong's assistance. Forston said "We needed his abilities in both experiment and theory for a relatively new project… Having to wait nine months beyond his expected arrival - plus all the uncertainty - definitely hurt" (Lehrke, 2003a).

Instead of studying in the U.S., foreign students may remain in their own countries or study in a foreign country other than the U.S. Lehrke also quoted Curt DeVere of the UW International Students Office: "If payment becomes more difficult… there may be a point at which a student says 'I'm going to Australia instead.'" (Lehrke, 2003b).

Finally, writing in the International Herald Tribune on November 6, 2003, former U.S. President Bill Clinton said

I think the great mission of the 21st century is to create a genuine global community, to move from mere interdependence to integration, to a community that has shared responsibilities, shared benefits and shared values. How would we go about building that kind of world?
Clinton's message applies to a range of issues, student visas into the U.S. included. Failing to address policies that hinder the U.S. government's ability to issue foreign student visas also hinders opportunities to work towards an integrated global community, which would offer such benefits as increased cultural stratification and multi-national information exchange. Especially given the negligible amount of additional protection the student visa application process affords the U.S., as The Economist (May 8-14, 2004) argues, the loss of the opportunity for cultural awareness and information exchange between American and non-American students is arguably the biggest loss incurred by the unresolved issues with foreign student visa applications.

Works Cited
  • The Economist. (2004, May 8-14). Short Sighted: Visas and Science. The Economist, v. 371, # 8374, p. 13.

  • Lehrke, D. (2003a, October 21). Physics Absences Hamper Research. The Daily of the University of Washington, 113, 17, pp. 1, 8.

  • Lehrke, D. (2003b, October 28). Foreign Student Fee Starts. The Daily of the University of Washington, 113, 22, pp. 1, 5.


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Page last updated: February 7, 2004