Moratorium on student visas would deter foreign talent
October 29, 2001
Because a few of the Sept. 11 terrorists were in the United States on student visas, some members in Congress want to impose new restrictions on issuing those visas.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has proposed a six-month moratorium on issuing new student visas. Others have proposed limiting what subjects foreigners would be allowed to study.
As a former visiting professor in China, where I worked with many students applying to American universities, I believe these proposed measures would be counterproductive.
There are more than 500,000 foreign students in the United States, and they fill many of the research assistant and teaching assistant positions in our university system, helping make it one of the best in the world.
What's more, foreign graduates of American universities help fill the technical and scientific skills gap in this country, thereby benefiting our economy.
Over the long term, maintaining an open student-visa system could promote democracy and peace around the world.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, a native of Ghana who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year, earned degrees from Macalester College in Minnesota and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Lee Teng-hui, who led Taiwan's transition from dictatorship to democracy as Taiwan's first freely elected president, earned degrees from Iowa State and Cornell University.
But our current student-visa system could do more to live up to its potential to do good for both America and the world.
In China, where I taught law, the U.S. embassy's visa office rejects about 40 percent of all applications for U.S. student visas. Many of them are rejected because of the so-called intent to immigrate rule -- which prohibits issuing a student visa to any applicant who, in the opinion of the visa officer, intends to stay in the United States after finishing his studies.
One of my law students in China had planned to head to Northwestern Law School, but her visa application was denied on intent to immigrate grounds just a few weeks before classes were to begin.
The rule would make sense if it were limited to those who intended to use a visa as a means to immigrate illegally. But it's unfair that the prohibition also applies to those who intend to apply for legal residency.
If Kofi Annan were applying for a student visa today, his application would likely be denied. Since he would be coming from the relatively poor nation of Ghana, it would be quite difficult for him to convince a visa officer that he did not intend to stay in the United States after graduation.
Because of chronic underfunding for State Department embassy operations, visa offices are terribly understaffed. As a result, interviews for visas at the Beijing embassy average just two minutes. Stories are commonplace of rapid-fire and arbitrary decisions issued by overworked officers.
I experienced this myself when a Beijing visa officer flat-out refused to read a letter I had written on behalf of a student. "I don't want to read any letter," she said, and then denied her application with the letter still unread. After having taught my students about the American legal principle of due process, it was disheartening to see my own government treat visa applicants so poorly.
When Congress considers changing our current student-visa system, it should resist the urge to pass knee-jerk legislation imposing severe restrictions on student visas. Such measures might win short-term political points, but in the end would be self-defeating.
Instead of protecting ourselves from terrorists, we are likely to keep out future Kofi Annans. Over the long-term, establishing and funding a more fair-minded and humane student-visa system is the wiser course.
Timothy Kiefer practices law in Milwaukee. He was a visiting professor of law at Peking University in Beijing during the 2000-2001 academic year. He can be reached at email@example.com.