Foreign students fear holiday travels could bar U.S. re-entry

By Justin Pritchard, The Associated Press
Friday November 16, 2001

Nadia El-Guendy faces an anguishing choice: If she doesn’t return to Egypt next month, she may not see her 75-year-old father again. But if she leaves the country, she fears she might not be allowed to return and finish her Ph.D. in microbiology at the University of Kentucky. 

To go home or stay? 

As winter break nears, it is a calculation of deep concern to hundreds of thousands of foreign students from Boston to Berkeley. 

With the Bush administration announcing stricter scrutiny of foreigners, especially those from Muslim nations, students who have come to this country legally fear the wrong answer could change their lives. 

Some have canceled tickets home or decided to spend the holidays in America. Others plan to carry sheafs of extra documents to ply on immigration agents. 

El-Guendy, 32, has not yet decided. Her answer lies with a friend who in December will try to go to Cairo and return to the United States. If he can secure a visa without too much hassle, she will try to do the same. 

“I’m supposed to graduate in spring, and I don’t want to risk it,” says El-Guendy. “I heard rumors that they are not giving any more visas, but I think they are not true. Nothing is confirmed.” 

There were 565,000 foreign students at 4,000 American colleges and universities in 1998, the most recent data available, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. While not all foreign students go home during breaks, many want to travel — whether to care for a stricken parent, reconnect with their roots, or present an academic paper overseas. 

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., a weekly newsletter updates students on the latest travel information and tells them how to prepare. Among the advice: bring extra documents such as the latest copy of their transcript, financial documentation showing they can support themselves, their original immigration papers, and even registrar’s receipts showing they are full-time students who’ve paid their bills on time. 

“They ask, ’Will I be able to come back?”’ said Jane Havis, director of RPI’s international student services office. “I tell them, ’As of today there should be no problems, but all hell could break loose.’ We’re dealing with the unknown.” 

Some students will return home no matter what. But many of Northeastern University’s 2,700 foreign students are opting to remain near the Boston campus, says Scott Quint, director of the university’s international student office. 

Travel plans often must be made months in advance. But this year, the clamor for tighter immigration controls following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has made purchasing tickets unusually tough. Lawmakers have seized on the fact that one of the suspected hijackers, Saudi Arabian Hani Hanjour, entered the country on a student visa. 

“We welcome the process that encourages people to come to our country to visit, to study or to work,” President Bush said last month. “What we don’t welcome are people who come to hurt the American people, and so therefore, we’re going to be very diligent with our visas.” 

Last week, the State Department announced that U.S. embassies will slow the visa process for young men from more than 20 Muslim nations so it can search for evidence of terrorist activities. Egypt was among those countries. 

The wait could add about three weeks to visa approvals and further discourage students from countries where interactions with government bureaucrats often are difficult. 

That fact alone convinced Fahd Awad, a junior at Northeastern, not to return to his native Yemen next month. Winter break is just two weeks, and he can’t afford to miss class. 

“I have friends who traveled and when they tried to come back after the incidents that happened Sept. 11 they were delayed,” he said. “I know that stuff’s going to happen to me as well. I am from Yemen.” 

International students keenly are following news reports that federal agents have compiled a list of 5,000 male foreigners, mostly from Middle Eastern countries, and are tracking them down for questioning. They are well aware that more than 200 universities have provided records on their Middle Eastern students to law enforcement. 

To travel or not is the question burning up e-mail exchanges among members of the Egyptian Students Association in North America, whose members have heard conflicting advice from their universities. 

“One office is saying, ’OK everything is fine, you can go,”’ says Gehad Sadiek, a physics Ph.D. candidate at Purdue University who served as the group’s president. “Other offices are more frank and say ’We don’t really know.”’ 

Students from non-Muslim countries also are pausing before making winter break plans. 

In mid-October, Soledad Bos bought a $1,300 ticket to return to Argentina after spending this fall studying public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Two days later, like thousands of her peers, Bos received an e-mail from the university urging international students not to fly home. It cited a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would have suspended all new student visas for six months. 

Despite pressure from her parents, Bos resolved not to go. 

“I was very scared,” she said. “After all the effort I made to come here, I wasn’t going to jeopardize the possibility of being here to end my master’s studies.” 

Since then, Feinstein’s proposal withered away and Bos decided to keep her ticket, containing her fears about being grilled by federal officials. 

“I’m prepared to answer any other questions that they ask,” she said. “And I think they should do that.” 


Associated Press Writer JoAnn Loviglio contributed to this report from Philadelphia. 


On the Net: 

INS: http://www.ins.gov 

RPI travel tips: http://www.rpi.edu/safecampus/questions.htmlAnchor-For-47383