New AIP Survey, Hearings Explore Impacts of Visa Restrictions

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Publication date: 
16 July 2003

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 visa problems.

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, 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 procedures.

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.

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