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Updated 10:00 AM April 11, 2005




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Improvements in student visa process roll out welcome mat

The U.S. State Department has made significant strides in improving the process to end delays in the issuance of visas for international students, a senior state department official reported to an audience in the Rackham Amphitheatre on April 6.

Janice Jacobs, deputy assistant secretary of state for visa services in the Bureau of Consular Affairs visited U-M to talk with students and University officials about recent improvements to the visa process.

Jacobs noted that while international students generate about $13 billion annually to the U.S. economy, it also is in the long-term strategic interests of the United States to encourage students from abroad to study here.

"It is the ties that are established, the relationships they form, the values that are passed on. When these people become leaders [in their countries] they have a better idea of the United States," she said. "I hope we can begin to get the word out of the improvements we've made. We don't want to lose even one student. It is very important that people know that the welcome mat is out."

In the aftermath of 9/11, government measures instituted to make the country's borders more secure included new processes for gathering, sharing and reviewing information among a number of government agencies, some of them new. New requirements included personal interviews at U.S. consulates, background checks on persons with academic interests in a wide range of science and technology fields, and the gathering of digitized biometric information.

Implementing the new systems caused significant delays in the processing of visas, particularly in the summers of 2002 and 2003. The higher education and scientific community raised concerns to the Bush Administration about the impact the delays were having, as applications from international students dropped sharply. The State Department and the General Accounting Office began a high-level review of the impact of the new procedures. As a result, the State Department has implemented the following measures:

• Added substantial numbers of consular positions to overseas posts to handle the additional workload and to shorten the wait time for a visa interview;

• Gave consular officials additional tools they needed to meet regulations after 9/11;

• Told consulates to give students priority for visa appointments, and sent guidance telegrams about the importance of maintaining open borders for students coming to study in the United States;

• Posted more comprehensive visa processing information on the Web site about waiting time for visas.

The implementation of SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System), the program that tracks international students admitted to U.S. colleges and universities, has begun to improve communications and information-sharing, Jacobs said, and has contributed to a slightly higher issuance rate of student visas as consular offices now can easily confirm that a university had made a legitimate admissions offer to a student.

While graduate students in science and engineering fields still experience a delay in receiving clearance, 97 percent of people applying for non-immigrant visas who are deemed qualified after an interview receive their visas within one day. For the remaining cases, which often include students, it now takes on average 14 days to complete a background clearance and process a visa. Last year, the average delay was 75 days or more, she said.

John Godfrey, assistant dean for international education at Rackham, underscored the importance of Jacobs' visit. "I think it shows the State Department has taken very seriously the concerns American universities have for keeping open doors for international students," he said. "Unfortunately, the difficulty that international students have experienced in recent years has discouraged many. The volume of applications we receive from international students has dropped by half in the past two years, and this can have far-reaching consequences for Michigan's international position as a leading research university"

The University has seen the improvements Jacobs outlined, Godfrey said.

"Last summer, nearly all admitted international students were able to obtain their visas in time," he said.

To help get word out, the Rackham Graduate School is going to note the improving situation for student visas on its recently revised admissions Web site


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