Fewer foreign students at Iowa since 9/11

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Two years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, tighter immigration guidelines have reduced the number of foreign students at the University of Iowa. Scott King, director of international students, blames a combination of the slow worldwide economy and a new anti-terrorism database _ the Student Exchange and Visitor Information System, or SEVIS. The database was one of several measures enacted after the terrorist attacks to track foreign students. One of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers had entered the U.S. legally on a student visa. SEVIS helps ensure that foreign students are legitimately coming to the United States to be students, said Alonzo Martinez, spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Omaha, Neb. It helps monitor when students come into the United States and when they report to their schools, Martinez said. Officials make sure students are qualified academically and can afford tuition. They also check for any criminal background, he said. Mansi Bhatia, 25, a journalism graduate student from northern India, said the interview required to obtain a student visa can be nerve-racking. “I was more than sure I would be rejected,” she said of her interview at the American embassy in Delhi. “I’d been hearing stories about embassies rejecting everyone.” She was shocked when the official approved her within five minutes, Bhatia said. Other students had been grilled for 20 minutes and then rejected, she said. The process became even more confusing when a friend who interviewed at another U.S. embassy in India was rejected, but then traveled to Dubai, where her father worked, and was accepted, Bhatia said. “We could see no reason why she was rejected in India but was accepted in Dubai,” she said. In the past, students coming from some European countries were issued visas the same day their application was submitted, King said. They now may wait as long as a month. King said the process takes even longer for students from the Middle East and China, and rejection rates are higher. “Individuals from China who are in various high security areas are having to go through a much more extensive check,” King said. “One area we’ve had to deal with a lot has been biology and biochemistry. That’s listed by the U.S. government as being one of our sensitive areas of study.” Students applying to those programs are put through a different security check before the U.S. embassy in their country will issue them a visa because there is a concern about a loss of trade secrets, he said. “We’ve been told that embassy officials are being held personally responsible should they issue a visa to someone who comes into the United States and does harm,” King said. “That’s their career on the line if that is the case, and therefore they’re going to be more hesitant.” King said some students may give up and go to countries that are easier to get into, such as Australia, Canada, England and Germany. He said some nations actually help universities recruit foreign students. Foreign students pay out-of-state tuition, and since many of them come to the United States to pursue more expensive graduate study, lower numbers means the university suffers a financial loss,he said. Also lost, he said, is the opportunity to promote democracy. “International exchange is one of the best ways to export our ideals,” King said. “If they don’t come here, they’re going to get their values from another source, and I think that is a big, big loss for the United States.” While King said applications from foreign students were down, he did not have specific numbers. He said the number of foreign students enrolled at the university this fall would be available later this month. Officials at Iowa State University in Ames said no numbers would be available until the end of the month. Bhatia said universities in India don’t offer courses in the specialty area of health reporting. She said she considered Boston University, Emerson and Stanford, but chose Iowa because the program is excellent and, unlike at other schools, she also will be able to take courses in the College of Medicine. Despite the inconveniences, Bhatia said coming to the United States has been a good experience. “We need to comply with all of that stuff,” Bhatia said of the immigration rules. “If you see it from a broader perspective it’s for your own security. “It’s not as if they want to hassle you. They just want to make sure the right people are in _ and the wrong people are out _ of the country.”

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