US illegals find access denied

March 19, 2004

Illegal immigrants living in the US face new barriers to higher education after a federal judge ruled that they may be denied admission to universities.

The case was brought in Virginia by two students, one the son of illegal immigrants who attended US public schools and the other an immigrant with temporary legal status.

It followed a leaked memo sent to public universities in Virginia two years ago by Jerry W. Kilgore, the state's attorney general, warning that they should not only refuse to admit illegal immigrants, but also report the names of any applicants living illegally in the US to federal authorities.

Federal judge T. S. Ellis III stopped short of dismissing the lawsuit against seven universities and colleges accused of violating the rights of the immigrants by refusing them entry. But he said: "It is clear that denying illegal aliens admission to public colleges and universities simply removes another public incentive for illegal immigration."

Virginia's senate is about to consider legislation, passed by the lower house last month, that bars public universities from admitting illegal immigrants.

The bill and the federal court ruling are out of line with a trend for illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition fees. So far, seven states have introduced such concessions.

These states, and others considering similar policies, will not be affected unless the issue reaches the supreme court, which ruled in 1982 that illegal immigrants are entitled to a primary and secondary education, but remained silent on higher education.

Meanwhile, applications by international students to US graduate programmes have fallen by more than 30 per cent following tightened visa regulations since September 11, 2001.

The fall-off, reported by the Council of Graduate Schools, follows the release of an investigation by an arm of Congress, which found that new restrictions have increased the time it takes to get a student visa to an average of 67 days. Some applicants have had to wait up to a year for a visa, the study found.

Members of Congress have urged the various agencies that handle visas to cooperate more closely and reduce what one agency, Sherwood Boehlert of New York, called "needless delays".

Frustrated university officials are walking a fine line between criticising the security measures and begging the government to speed things up. Debra Stewart, president of the CGS, urged Congress to "address aggressively the real and perceived problems in the visa process" while also "appropriately assuring national security".

Ms Stewart said declines were in areas "critical to maintaining the scientific enterprise and economic competitiveness of our country as well as the cultural and intellectual diversity that contributes to the international renown of US graduate education".

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