Dealing with Foreign Students and Scholars in the Age of Terrorism: Visa Backlogs and Tracking Systems
President Shirley M. Tilghman
March 26, 2003
Testimony presented to the
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science
Good morning Chairman Boehlert, Ranking Member Hall and members of the House Science Committee. Thank you for holding this very important hearing to consider the impact of post-September 11th changes in the international student and scholar visa program on research and education in the United States.
The events of the past two years have made us all more aware of the need to consider the national security implications of our work and daily activities. The higher education and scientific communities have been responsive to the call to think carefully about security issues in our research laboratories. In doing so, we are trying to balance two exceedingly important objectives: to minimize the risk that our laboratories and the materials in them will be used for terrorist purposes, and to maximize the likelihood that the American scientific enterprise will flourish. America’s economic, political, and military strengths are rooted in its leadership in the worlds of science and technology and in the freedom of thought and expression that are at the core of our democracy and of our approaches to research and teaching.
As was so clearly articulated in the Hart-Rudman report, Road Map for National Security: Imperative for Change, a robust system of research and education is our greatest defense against terrorism. The report calls the current investment in research and development a “consumption of the capital” of the past three generations, pointing out that “the U.S. need for the highest quality human capital in science, mathematics, and engineering is not being met.” It goes on to explain that:
“American students know that professional careers in basic science and mathematics require considerable preparation and effort, while salaries are often more lucrative in areas requiring less demanding training. Non-U.S. nationals, however, do find these professions attractive and, thanks to science, math, and technical preparation superior to that of many Americans, they increasingly fill American university graduate studies seats and job slots in these areas.”
So, while we make national and institutional efforts to attract American students to careers in science and work to improve K-12 education to produce more Americans who have the capabilities necessary to excel in science and mathematics, we turn to international students and scholars to fill the widening gap between supply and demand for U.S. scientists and engineers. These foreign scientists and scholars make many critical contributions to the American scientific and education enterprise. They bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to our colleges and universities, and they enrich the cultural diversity of our campuses. Given the global nature of business, the economy, education, and the scientific enterprise, cultural diversity on our campuses pays important dividends to our entire society; it is imperative to the future success of our graduates and the international leadership and stability of our nation.
Foreign-born scientists have, for more than 50 years, helped the U.S. achieve the pre-eminence in science and technology that has led to our strong economic growth and long-term national security. Almost 20 percent of the distinguished scientists and engineers who are members of the National Academy of Sciences, and more than a third of U.S. Nobel Laureates, are foreign born. I, too, am a foreign-born scientist, having been raised and educated in Canada prior to my graduate studies at Temple University. According to the 2002 Science and Engineering Indicators, nearly a third of the doctoral degrees in science and engineering awarded in the U.S. each year go to foreign nationals, with well over 40 percent of the doctoral degrees in engineering and computer science earned by foreign students. Two-thirds of foreign students who receive a Ph.D. in science or engineering stay in the U.S., taking positions in academia and industry, and nearly 40 percent of the current U.S. engineering faculty is foreign-born.
Despite the important contributions that foreign students and scholars have made and continue to make to U.S. advances in science and technology, we are all painfully aware that at least three of the 19 September 11th hijackers were attending U.S. flight schools on student visas when they committed their heinous acts. And we know from the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that others exploited weaknesses in the student non-immigrant visa program and were in this country on expired student visas when they committed their crime. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, there has been increased oversight of the student and scholar visa program resulting in new legislation and regulations in this area.
Most notable among the changes in the student/scholar visa program are: 1) expansion of the Technology Alert List (TAL) to include the biological sciences and urban planning as Critical Fields of Study; 2) guidance to consular officers that restrictions on the export of controlled goods and technologies (the TAL) apply to nationals of all countries and not just to those who are from state sponsors of terrorism; 3) guidance that consular officers are not expected to be versed in all fields on the TAL, but should “listen for key words or phrases from the Critical Fields list” while interviewing applicants; and 4) elimination of time limitations on decisions by the State Department to suspend the processing of a student visa request. Each of these changes has increased the number of cases that are referred to the State Department and other federal agencies for additional screening and security approval, and the increased case load has resulted in prolonged processing time for nearly all student visa applications.
While I understand the reasons behind these changes in regulations and enforcement, I am concerned about the lack of clarity in the regulations and the lack of training for consular officers to interpret them. For example, an October 2001 cable encouraged consular officers to post “cheat sheets” at interview windows so that staff can become familiar with the contents of the Critical Fields List. Consular officers are reminded that “restrictions on the export of controlled goods and technologies apply to nationals of all countries” and are told directly that they are not expected to be versed in all the fields on the list. Rather, they should “shoot for familiarization and listen for key words or phrases from the list in applicants’ answers to interview questions.”
In the category of chemical, biotechnology and biomedical engineering, for example, the Critical Fields List notes that “the same technologies that could be applied to develop and produce chemical and biological weapons are used widely by civilian research laboratories and industry” and that “advanced biotechnology has the potential to support biological weapons research.” The list then goes on to name nearly every conceivable field and subfield within biology so that it would be almost impossible for a foreign national to describe his or her area of study without using several of the terms on the list, including biochemistry, bacteriology, microbiology, growth and culturing of microorganisms, genetic engineering, recombinant DNA technology, fermentation technology and immunology. The non-specific nature of this list and the obvious lack of expertise and training among consular officers raise serious concerns about the efficacy of this program and about our future capacity as a country to attract foreign graduate students and scholars to science and engineering programs.
While the higher education community fears that increased screening requirements and delays in the visa application process will have a significant negative impact on the recruitment and retention of foreign students and scholars, a look at the current data reveals that beyond a few difficult cases, the business of higher education has not yet changed significantly as a result of changes in the visa program. At Princeton, international students have accounted for approximately 43 percent of our total graduate student population last year and this year. (Since the size of our graduate student population has increased, so too has the number of international students.) Our undergraduate international student population has also increased over the past few years, from 6.0 percent in 2001 to 6.9 percent in 2002 and 7.5 percent in 2003. While we have had some difficulties at the undergraduate level, these students generally are not subjected to the same level of scrutiny as graduate students or scholars when applying for visas.
A recent survey of Ivy League universities revealed that some institutions experienced slight decreases in international graduate and professional student populations between 2001 and 2002, while others experienced slight growth. Even among those reporting decreases, it is hard to know how much is the result of real or perceived difficulties in obtaining visas. These data suggest that while individual students almost certainly have experienced difficulties — or at least delays — in obtaining visas, the overall number of international students at these institutions has remained relatively stable.
At Princeton, like many other U.S. universities, we find the largest concentration of international students in the sciences and engineering, along with a handful of other departments (in our case economics and our Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs). In fact, economics has the second largest concentration of international graduate students, following only electrical engineering and just ahead of chemistry. Our international student population in the life sciences is relatively low (roughly 20 percent), but this is largely because of citizenship requirements for NIH graduate training grants, the largest source of support for our graduate students in the life sciences. In general, Princeton has responded to changes in the visa application process by instructing international students to apply early and build in time for delays. Still, we have had a number of cases that have been particularly difficulty to resolve.
During the 2002-2003 academic year, two undergraduate students had difficulty getting their F-1 visas, but ultimately did receive them (although after the academic year had started). Among our graduate students, one engineering student was delayed by a semester (requiring an exception to our Fall-only admissions practice) and an Iranian visiting student research collaborator in chemical engineering has been waiting for over four months for a visa. Among our international scholars, a Russian and a Libyan-born British engineer experienced delays of several months in obtaining visas and a Russian physicist who applied for his visa in mid-January is still waiting for permission to enter the U.S. An Iranian chemist who applied for a visa in October never succeeded in obtaining his visa. Other universities around the country report similar delays for some of their students or scholars, especially among individuals who are from Russia, China, or the Middle East and who wish to study in the physical or computer sciences or engineering.
In addition to students and scholars who must endure prolonged delays in getting their visas, institutions also have been coping with students and faculty who are already in the U.S. but who leave the country to attend professional meetings or family events abroad. These individuals are experiencing prolonged waiting times (six weeks to several months) when they try to secure the necessary visa to re-enter the U.S. During the recent winter break there were four engineering graduate students from Princeton who traveled abroad and had difficulty re-entering the country. Among the four, one (a Chinese student in physics) has returned, while three (a Malaysian electrical engineering student, a Chinese mechanical engineering student, and a Chinese civil engineering student) are still awaiting their visas to return. Our colleagues around the country indicate that they, too, are experiencing similar difficulties.
These cases of delayed re-entry are even more problematic than the delays experienced by “first-time” students and scholars because students or scholars who have already been in residence are generally scheduled to teach classes or continue ongoing research upon their return. Also, questions related to salary and benefits arise when students or scholars experience prolonged delays in obtaining their return visa, especially when the student or scholar is being paid and receiving benefits through federal research grants. For example, an international scholar may leave the country to attend a four-day meeting abroad, only to find that his or her re-entry is delayed by more than six weeks while the re-entry visa application is being processed. The individual may be able to use several weeks of vacation leave to cover time away from work, but the delay often exceeds the accumulated leave by many weeks. The most troubling cases involve international scholars detained outside the U.S. while their families — often including spouses who do not have permission to work in the U.S. — await their return in the U.S. These difficulties are exacerbated if salary must be withheld and benefits interrupted as a result of the re-entry delay.
In earlier times, a university could apply for advance pre-approval for international students and scholars who would be traveling abroad but then re-entering the U.S. This pre-approval allowed the student or scholar to undergo security clearance before he or she left the U.S., thereby minimizing the waiting time during the re-entry approval process at the foreign consulate. A similar pre-approval or pre-certification process for foreign students or scholars already in the U.S. would help enormously in reducing the re-entry waiting period and in providing scholars with much greater confidence about their ability to re-enter the U.S. after they fulfill their professional obligations by participating in scientific meetings and collaborations abroad.
Another area in which the university has been forced to change its practices and policies to accommodate prolonged screening and approval processes is in the H1-B visa program. Following September 11th, the processing time for H1-B visa applications has grown to four or five months. This means that hiring decisions and contract extension decisions have to be made far in advance to ensure that the visa will be processed in time for an H1-B worker to enter or stay in the U.S. Rather than make hiring and extension decisions based on our institutions’ needs at a particular time or based on an informed performance assessment of an individual, we have to anticipate our needs and an individual’s performance in advance so that we can allow adequate time for processing the visa. The INS does provide for expedited H1-B visa processing when a $1,000 premium processing fee is paid, but this fee strikes many in the higher education community as unjust and inappropriate. Moreover, this practice extends the waiting period for those who cannot or choose not to pay $1,000 for premium processing.
In May 2002, White House officials proposed a new international student and scholar screening program that would create a panel, the Interagency Panel on Advanced Science Security (IPASS), to screen some graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and scientists who apply for visas to study “sensitive topics… uniquely available on U.S. campuses.” The panel would include representatives from the major U.S. science agencies as well as the State, Justice, Commerce and Homeland Security Departments. IPASS could solve some of the problems and deficiencies in the current non-immigrant visa program. For example, an IPASS panel made up of individuals with scientific expertise could better evaluate the potential for technology transfer than a non-scientist consular officer who is relying on a broad, uninformative list of terms to make that decision. Secondly, by sending the most difficult or questionable applications to IPASS, consular officers could process the less questionable applications more quickly, thereby reducing the backlog and delays for the majority of applicants. The creation of IPASS also provides an opportunity for the new Department of Homeland Security to work with scientific agencies and, we hope, institutions of higher education to develop a student and scholar visa screening program that could better differentiate between those with malicious intent and those who would contribute productively while in the U.S. We look forward to conversations with the new Department of Homeland Security on this and other issues in the near future and hope that IPASS will provide an opportunity for constructive partnership.
On the other hand, IPASS could add yet another layer of bureaucracy to an already burdensome process and the visa backlog could grow even longer. Even though the IPASS system was announced nearly a year ago, details of the program have not yet been released. Not only are university officials waiting to see what IPASS holds for them, but foreign students and scholars are similarly concerned about what restrictions and regulations this new program might entail. The absence of information about IPASS could dissuade excellent international students from applying to U.S. institutions for fear that this new system will impose additional burdens and delays. We know that other countries are working hard to develop higher education systems that mirror the U.S. system, and the more difficult we make it for highly desirable students and scholars to obtain American visas, the greater the likelihood that the “best and brightest” students and scholars throughout the world will elect to study and work in other countries.
The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) is the web-based system that is being used to meet the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) information reporting and tracking requirements for foreign students. Although we have anticipated the system since 1996 when Congress directed the INS to develop an electronic system to collect data on foreign students, the implementation of the system was fast-tracked in response to the USA PATRIOT Act (PL 107-56, October 26, 2001), which required full implementation of the system by January 1, 2003. While Princeton is fully supportive of SEVIS and the transition from an outdated paper tracking system to an electronic format, there seem to be a number of serious bugs in the system.
The March 2003 report issued by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General provides an informative review of the SEVIS program and outlines the major difficulties associated with full implementation of the program. Rather than repeat that discussion, I will talk about our own experience in implementing SEVIS and using the system to track and report on international students and scholars.
In order to comply with the requirements of SEVIS, Princeton has spent over $38,000, including $15,000 to purchase software to facilitate batch transfer of data, $5,000 for a new server, and thousands of dollars more for maintenance agreements, test servers and added personnel costs. While we thought that the implementation of SEVIS would be a “one-time” cost, we are actually finding that SEVIS is far from being “plug and play” technology and we are seeing rising personnel costs associated with using the system. Implementing SEVIS on our campus required weeks of effort on the part of our Office of Information Technology, our Office of General Counsel, and our undergraduate and graduate international student services offices. Eventually, we had to assign a technical expert from our Office of Information Technology to focus primarily on maintaining our SEVIS reporting system.
Although the initial SEVIS program was fraught with software bugs and glitches, INS has been working hard to develop patches to fix the programming problems. But every time INS develops a new patch for its software, we have to wait for our batch processing software vendor to develop a corresponding patch that we must then install. At some point we anticipate that an upgrade will be necessary to the SEVIS system and that we will have to make an additional purchase of upgraded batch processing software.
Beyond cost, the implementation of SEVIS has been extremely frustrating to the people on our campus who work with international students and scholars. For lack of a better word, the SEVIS system is “quirky,” especially when the user volume is high (afternoons are the most difficult since both East Coast and West Coast institutions are using the system). While the paper INS forms previously required 5-10 minutes to complete, the SEVIS system can take up to 30 minutes per individual, especially on days when the program is running slowly. Sometimes the system kicks the data entry person out just as he or she is about to complete the Web-based form, and all of the information is lost. At other times the data entry person is interrupted by a phone call or a student while entering data and the system automatically logs the user out, requiring the user to log-in again and re-enter all of the data. Other institutions have reported difficulties retrieving their institutional data from SEVIS, sometimes receiving another institution’s data during a retrieval attempt.
Beyond system difficulties, SEVIS also has some substantive deficiencies in that it is missing fields and options that correspond to certain INS policies and regulations. For example, institutions are allowed to provide a J-1 scholar with an extra six-month extension as long as INS is notified of the extension. However, in the SEVIS system institutions are required to request authorization of the extension from the State Department. Since the SEVIS procedure is inconsistent with current INS policy, either the policy must be changed or the SEVIS system must be corrected so that our staff know how to proceed. Also, while SEVIS provides a way to report practical training experiences for F-1 visa holders, there is no similar reporting field in the J-1 program for students participating in academic training experiences. Finally, there are some reporting functions that cannot be transmitted to INS as part of a batch data transmission due to gaps in the SEVIS software system. Information about transfer students, for example, must be entered manually for each student and cannot be transmitted to INS as part of a batch data transfer. While Princeton has no transfer students, we appreciate the hardships imposed by this software gap on institutions that do have a large transfer student population.
SEVIS provides customer support through users’ guides and a help desk, but both have deficiencies. Our staff finds the F visa manual to be quite good, while the J visa manual is poorly written and missing key information. The help desk operates from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST, but since there are only 32 people staffing it, the wait time can exceed 30 minutes. Beyond that, the help desk can only answer technical questions related to programming problems and cannot provide advice in the area of policy, regulations, or procedures. Questions of this sort must be directed to the State Department, but sometimes the State Department staff members are unfamiliar with the capabilities of the SEVIS system. Since the most difficult questions have both policy and programming elements, the help desk should be staffed by individuals who are knowledgeable not only about the SEVIS software, but also about INS regulations and requirements.
In summary, I want to re-emphasize that the higher education community understands the need for increased scrutiny of those applying to enter our country on student and scholar visas. We would like to work with the State Department, INS and the new Department of Homeland Security to develop a more effective and efficient screening procedure. Since we work with international students and scholars every day, we are in a position to understand both the needs of students and scholars and the vulnerabilities of the current system. We look forward to learning more about the new Department of Homeland Security and its plans regarding the student and scholar visa system and we ask the Department to include us in its dialogue on this and other issues. We commend the State Department for its work in this area and are encouraged to hear that the Department is adding personnel and re-examining its procedures in an attempt to reduce the backlog and expedite visa processing while maintaining high security standards. While the backlog troubles us, we know that consular officers and State Department officials have experienced dramatic increases in workload and we appreciate their current efforts to reduce the backlog and expedite visa processing while improving national security.
Thank you. I welcome questions regarding my testimony.