Senators warn Biden on international student visa delays

Major delays in embassy processing times suggest State Department is not prioritising issue, lawmakers say

August 9, 2021
Havana - CUB; February 24, 2019 Building of the United States Embassy in Havana. This building is the main place for diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States.
Source: iStock

With the autumn semester only days away, US educators and lawmakers are warning the Biden administration of a looming disaster in international student enrolment because of the slow pace of visa processing.

In a letter to the US State Department, two dozen US senators say they recognise the complications posed by Covid but believe the department is not doing all it can to prioritise the handling of students from abroad.

Their assessment was reinforced by Nafsa, a leading association of educators involved in international exchanges, which said it fears a repeat of last autumn, when enrolment by overseas undergraduates at US colleges and universities shrank by nearly 14 per cent.

“Without swift action,” said Nafsa’s executive director, Esther Brimmer, “America faces the possibility of another semester – and possibly a year – with very few new international students and scholars arriving to learn and engage at our colleges and universities.”

The US regularly leads the world in international student enrolment, topping the 1 million level in years prior to the pandemic. Institutions value the visitors both for the diversity they bring and for their willingness to pay elevated tuition fees.

With vaccinations now widely available in the US, colleges and universities were widely expecting a rebound in autumn enrolment by overseas students. A survey this spring by the Institute of International Education, covering more than 400 four-year doctoral universities, found most experiencing a rise in autumn applications.

But with the autumn semester about to begin, the State Department still shows visa appointments at many embassies and consulates around the world either unavailable or requiring wait times spanning months.

“Prospective students cannot be certain about whether their visas will be processed in time for them to travel to the United States to begin their studies,” the senators tell the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, in their letter.

The senators suggest the department take a series of immediate steps, including prioritising student visa processing and allowing alternatives to in-person processes that include online interviews and extensions of existing visas.

They warn of overseas students withdrawing or suffering poor educational experiences if left to study remotely from their home countries, with potentially major obstacles involving time zones and computer connections.

The State Department does not comment on congressional letters, a spokesman said, although Mr Blinken has publicly expressed his concern about the situation and described already taking some of the same steps the senators suggest.

Addressing a forum of international higher education professionals last month, the secretary described his department as granting new exceptions for overseas student visas and expanding waivers from requirements for in-person student visa interviews.

Also, wait times for student visa interviews at locations that include Beijing – capital of the nation that sends the most foreign students to the US – are just a matter of days, according to the department’s website.

“It’s strongly in our national interest for the United States to remain the world’s top study destination for international students,” Mr Blinken told the forum.

At the same time, the State Department spokesman said, the pandemic “resulted in profound reductions in the department’s visa processing capacity”, with student visas now ranked behind other priorities that include family members of US citizens, adoptions, weddings, and matters of public health and national security.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles