Life Placed On Hold: Visa Delays Present New Hurdles for International Students

When Shuo Chen applied for a new U.S. visa from her home country on Dec. 18, she was expecting to receive it in time to return to MIT at the beginning of January. However, after turning in her application to the U.S. embassy in China, she was told that her application could take up to eight weeks.

Meanwhile, colleagues at the Electrochemical Energy Lab said the unexpected absence of Chen was a serious hindrance to their research.

“It was like missing an arm,” one of her colleagues said.

Penny Rosser, director of the International Scholars Office, said that such extensive visa delays can result when the U.S. decides to perform an additional security check on an applicant. The reason why particular individuals are selected for additional screening is not disclosed, as the State Department considers the checks a matter of national security.

“They told me, ‘don’t book your tickets’,” said Chen, who had already purchased a ticket to return on Jan. 5.

While her parents were happy to see their daughter for an extended period of time, they shared Chen’s concern that her research and life at MIT had to be put on hold. Her husband, who remained in the United States while she was in China, made several calls to the State Department in Washington, DC, regarding the status of her visa application as the wait dragged on well into the winter.

On March 27, Chen finally received the e-mail that her application had been approved. She returned promptly to MIT a week later on April 4.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, there has been an increase in the number of students and scholars facing such checks, with the highest number coming from the Middle East, South Asia, and China. However, between 2007 and 2008, the number of MIT scholars subjected to delays of at least one month increased from 12 per year to around 50 per year.

International Students Office Director Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook said that there have been about 25 instances of students facing extensive visa delays over the past academic year, compared to 12–15 during the previous year. According to Guichard-Ashbrook, the average wait is three weeks, but waits of six to eight weeks are not uncommon among Middle Eastern males.

Further, while students and scholars in all fields have been subjected to lengthy background checks, Rosser and Guichard-Ashbrook mentioned that students and scholars in the biological and physical sciences, as well as engineering, are especially targeted.

Although international students and scholars hoping to come to MIT are very rarely denied visas to enter the United States, the risk of extensive delays is still liable to create the kind of agony faced by Chen.

“You can imagine how they feel when they end up getting stuck,” said Rosser. “Their research is here. Their department is here. Their families are here.”

Students are permitted to stay in the United States after the expiration of their visas, so long as they are continuing their academic work. Those who leave the country — either for personal, academic, or business purposes — have to contend with the trouble of coming back. For some, like Chen, that means having to apply for a new visa, but for others, like Sameer Hirji ’11, that means facing additional screening at the airport.

Hirji, a Tanzanian national of South Indian and Persian descent, said his challenge comes solely at the point of entry. Provided one’s documents are in order, he said that most Tanzanian students applying to study in the United States hear back from the U.S. embassy within two days.

Despite that, Hirji said that his passport often singles him out for additional screening when traveling. On his latest trip from home, he said he was screened seven times, including four times at London’s Heathrow Airport, where he was simply transferring between flights. In contrast, on a recent trip back from Amsterdam, he avoided the additional screening after pointing out that he was with friends with U.S. citizenship.

Similarly, Tarek El-Moselhy G, who grew up in Egypt, was stopped at Logan Airport on his way back from Saudi Arabia in Jan. 2006. Security officials asked him to explain every piece of Arabic text on him and briefly confiscated his laptop computer.

“I never used that computer again,” said El-Moselhy, uncertain what the airport officials did with the laptop out of his view.

Yasmeen al-Dawsari ’11, who is from Saudi Arabia, said that acquiring her visa and entering the United States for the first time was not a problem, but that she faced an unusually high level of screening after returning from a brief trip to Montreal. Prior to her flight, U.S. officials stopped her and asked her to undergo a registration process, which she said was usually just done to Saudi males.

The two-hour process caused her to miss her flight and left her puzzled as to the reason for the ordeal.

“You allowed me to come to your country,” said al-Dawsari, speaking of her prior entry to the U.S. “So why are you giving me a hard time?”

According to Guichard-Ashbrook, the lengths of visas are partly dependent on reciprocal agreements between the U.S. and foreign governments. That means visa lengths vary between students and do not always coincide with dates of graduation.

For example, while Majda AlMarzouqi ’12, a student from the United Arab Emirates, has a ten-year visa, Chen’s visa is for only three months. If Chen were to leave the U.S. after June, she would have to apply for a new visa to re-enter.

Though many international students have experienced, or know someone who has experienced, delays getting visas or entering the United States, some said they understood the rationale behind them.

Pointing to the Sept. 11 attacks, El-Moselhy said it is understandable that there has been increased scrutiny of young, single Muslim men.

“I do understand,” said El-Moselhy. “I don’t think it’s an unfair process.”

El-Moselhy believed his visa application was less scrutinized because he had a wife and child. He received his visa to the U.S. in less than a week, compared with single Egyptian men his age who sometimes have to wait up to six months.

AlMarzouqi and al-Dawsari speculated that they received their applications with minimal delay because they were women rather than men, as they both recalled male Arab friends and relatives who had experienced a greater amount of difficulty getting to the United States.

Ammar Ammar ’09, a Palestinian student from the West Bank, suggested that planning ahead is probably the best way to avoid complications with U.S. visa applications.

Recalling a warning from U.S. consular officials in Jerusalem, Ammar said, “They make it clear that this takes forever, so they can’t guarantee anything.”