Entry rules a blow to students

By David Morgan


YAHYA Jalil, a Pakistani graduate student, still has vivid memories of the exhilaration he felt when he arrived in the United States to study electrical engineering at Stanford University 11 years ago. 

“There was a real sense that this was a free country with lots of personal freedoms,” said the 29-year-old MBA candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. 

But few know better how life in the United States has changed for Muslim immigrants since the Sept 11 attacks on New York and Washington prompted a broad clamp-down on US immigration procedures. 

In March, Jalil says he boarded a flight for a job interview in Britain without realising he was supposed to register with US immigration authorities before leaving the country. His oversight violated a new Homeland Security policy aimed at tracking men from countries with large Muslim populations when they enter and exit the United States. 

So when he tried to return to America at the end of spring break, US officials declared him an “inadmissible” alien. He found himself marooned in Pakistan, where officials said the policy he had broken was so new they had not formulated a waiver system for inadvertent violators. 

Because of his expulsion, Jalil was unable to finish his course work and receive his MBA during Wharton’s graduation ceremony last month. 

“I can’t help feel that it’s a very different United States than the country I first landed in 11 years ago,” he said in an e-mail message from Pakistan. 

A one-time executive at General Electric and Credit Suisse First Boston, Jalil says he had a Pakistani-born friend who died in the Sept 11 attacks that killed 3,000 people. 

But he is only one of countless foreign students, researchers and professors whose lives have been turned upside down by the US government’s “war on terrorism.” 

Nowadays, foreign academics face lengthy visa application processing, sometimes exacerbated by security background checks. As a result, some faculty staff have been unavailable to teach classes and scientific research has been put on hold. 

“Visas are harder to get, they take longer to get, and that is especially the case if you’re an Arab or a Muslim male,” said Victor Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at the Association of International Educators. 

Experts say problems posed by tighter immigration rules have been compounded by the reluctance of the Bush administration and Congress to allocate extra resources. 

“Resources needed to implement these intensified security procedures properly are not being provided,” said Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities. 

The US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement estimates that there are about 1.2 million foreign students in the United States. A firm figure will have to wait until its new database becomes fully operational this year. 

“Our entire immigration process has atrophied,” said Center for Immigration Studies Research director Steve Camarota. 

Student visas came under special scrutiny after the government reported that student documents were mistakenly issued to two Sept 11 hijackers months after the attacks. 

New rules have also made entry harder for business travellers, tourists and even refugees. 

In fact, refugees who urgently need resettlement in the West are no longer referred to the United States, a UN spokesman said. 

The State Department has also told consulates and embassies to prepare to conduct face-to-face interviews with all visa seekers to verify the identities of the more than eight million visa applicants who seek US entry each year. 

That means longer waits for visa applicants, given that the State Department has fewer than 4,000 staff to deal with the new workload. 

Still, there are signs that things may be getting better. The wait for student visas, once over six months, has shrunk to 30 days in 90% of cases, government officials maintain. 

Jalil’s story also ends on a happy note. Soon after he was refused re-entry to America, Penn officials wrote letters asking the US ambassador to Pakistan to grant him a new visa. 

Penn students also petitioned the government with more than 3,400 electronic “signatures,” and joined Jalil’s relatives in lobbying three US senators. 

The lawmakers agreed to contact the Department of Homeland Security and its secretary, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. 

On May 10, the State Department rolled out a new system for granting visas to innocent violators of the exit registration policy, and Jalil was one of the first beneficiaries. 

But how long he will remain in the United States after he returns to collect his Wharton MBA has yet to be decided. 

“The thought of having to continually inform (authorities) of my travels, both domestically and internationally, of my intentions to move or buy a house, to be fingerprinted monthly and to allow tracking of all my purchases through registration of credit cards, does give me pause,” he said. – Reuters 

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