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Students Face Visa Hassles

By Xiaoli Zhou Special to the Planet
Friday December 05, 2003

When Zhirong Li, a second-year Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley, flew back to China last December to visit her family and boyfriend, she bought a return flight booked for Jan. 23. 

And then, while she was getting ready to come back to California, came word from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, informing her that she couldn’t return until she’d undergone a new security check. 

“The visa officer asked me to wait for two weeks until they called me back,” said Li. “I believed him.” 

Half a world away in Washington, her visa application had triggered an interagency security review, and two weeks stretched out into nearly eight months. The reason: Her major—plant biology—is deemed sensitive. 

The ordeal finally ended when she was cleared in mid-September. 

“It’s just too stressful,” Li recalled, sitting in her office on campus one recent weekend afternoon. “I had been waiting, and waiting, and waiting, without being able to see the ending.” 

As part of a series of measures the U.S. government adopted to tighten immigration laws and regulations after the 9/11 attacks, stricter scrutiny of visa applications have delayed many foreign students and scholars seeking to enter or re-enter the U.S. for some specific fields of study or research. 

According to the website of the House Committee on Science, many colleges and universities have reported that registered students and scholars—in particular, those from China and India—have had difficulty returning. 

At UC Berkeley, where international students and scholars make up 20 percent of graduate community, at least ten Chinese graduate students said they’d been forced to go through a lengthy security review this year when applying for re-entry visas to come back after vacation or business trips. 

A couple of those interviewed are still stuck in China, pending decisions from the involved agencies in Washington. According to the students, the review could last months, sometimes even over a year, and could end in a visa denial. 

“In the case of where they are waiting eight months, we certainly understand this is causing them inconvenience, but these are security measures,” said Kelly Shannon, a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. “It’s called erring on the side of caution.” 

But to students like Li, it’s not just “inconvenience.” She said her life was suddenly all about long distance phone calls, faxes, e-mails, and of course, anxious waiting. She said she had made every possible effort to obtain information about her visa status. 

In May, when SARS was rampant in Beijing, Li braved the risk, running to the U.S. Embassy. Refused entry, she had to shout at the Chinese staff inside, asking for information with a thick mask covering most of her face. 

“I wasn’t very hopeful when I went there,” Li said. “And I was less hopeful after I had been there.” 

While waiting in Beijing, Li still had to pay her rent and many other monthly bills in Berkeley, though all her living stipends for the new semester were cut. 

Li estimated her direct financial loss at about $20,000, but still worse, she had to postpone her PhD. qualifying exams for nearly a year, which caused a major interruption of her studies. 

“I was very upset by the delay, because it disrupted my teaching and research,” said Professor Kris Niyogi, Li’s principal instructor. “I was frustrated by the entire process because there was nothing that I could do to help.” 

Professor Niyogi said he didn’t know why Plant Biology is considered a sensitive topic, but Li said the visa officer in Beijing told her two courses listed on her transcript, Genetics and Biochemistry, led to the check. 

“I don’t think I’ll go back to China again before graduation,” Li said. But she needs another four years to complete her program.  

On the other side of the Pacific, Jun Yang is still stranded. 

Yang is a PhD. candidate with the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. After attending an international conference in Australia a few months ago, he returned China in July to apply for his re-entry visa.  

Since starting school here in 1999, Yang had filed for similar visas four times before, always receiving his visa within a week. But this time, he was checked. 

“What are they checking?” Yang asked over the phone from Beijing. “Are they checking my name against a database? Even if it’s against several databases, how could it take so long?” Nor can Yang understand why his major poses any danger to U.S. national security, he said. 

“There are many reasons that certain technologies and sciences are of concern,” said Shannon. “We work very carefully with (the involved agencies) to help streamline the process without compromising any security.”  

Yang said he understands the general terrorism anxiety in the U.S.—but to work things out more effectively, he said, the U.S. government shouldn’t target such a big pool, but should sharpen their focus. “The money can be used in a better way to keep American people safe,” he added. 

Since this April, Chinese students from 93 U.S. universities including UC Berkeley have started lining up to collect and share information about such visa security check. As of early September, over 600 Chinese “checkees” have posted their status online. Some reported delays of over a year and the majority said they were still pending. 

According to Kara Haas of the House Science Committee staff, the committee chairman has directed the General Accounting Office to investigate the lengthy delays and report back to the Congress. The final report is due early next year, she wrote in an e-mail. 

Ivor Emmanuel, director of Services for International Students and Scholars at UC Berkeley, said his office is working with the other departments on a project to determine the campus wide impact of the extra visa security checks on the academic mission of the university. They are also offering travel workshops to review the visa application process for re-entry into the U.S. for the international students.  

Meantime, some U.S. academic professionals are concerned that the visa delays and denials not only have adversely impacted multi-million dollar federally funded research projects, but may be hampering the ability of U.S. schools to compete for top students. 

Chinese media reported that the number of students who took the most recent TOEFL test in Beijing dropped by over 50%. Many stories attributed it to “the difficulty in obtaining the U.S. visa.” 

“It has become a bigger hassle now for Chinese to seek education in the U.S.,” said Yang. “It will be better for students to find a similar good program in Australia, England and Canada.”