ILW.COM - the immigration portal Immigration Daily

Home Page

Advanced search

Immigration Daily


Processing times

Immigration forms

Discussion board



Twitter feed

Immigrant Nation


CLE Workshops

Immigration books

Advertise on ILW

VIP Network


Chinese Immig. Daily


Connect to us

Make us Homepage



The leading
immigration law
publisher - over
50000 pages of free

Immigration LLC.

< Back to current issue of Immigration Daily < Back to current issue of Immigrant's Weekly



OCTOBER 31, 2001


My name is David Ward and I am president of the American Council on Education (ACE), an association representing 1,800 public and private colleges and universities. I am speaking today on behalf of 39 higher education organizations, more than 6,800 colleges, and the 15 million students enrolled on our campuses.

The recent terrorist attacks on the United States have prompted a complete review of a wide range of government and institutional activities. This effort quite properly includes questions about international students who come to this country on student visas to study at our colleges. At present, it appears that one or two of the September 11th terrorists may have entered the United States on a student visa. This only underscores the urgent need for an extensive review of the policies and procedures affecting the issuance and tracking of student visas.

I am pleased that this Committee is conducting this hearing. In addition to its general oversight responsibilities for higher education, the Education and the Workforce Committee has a role to play because Title VI of the Higher Education Act authorizes ten programs involving international education. For years, these programs have supplied the nation with experts and expertise about other nations, their cultures, political and business systems, histories, and their languages. We are pleased that the House passed Labor-HHS-Education bill for FY 2002 includes a significant increase in funding for these programs. That is an important step in addressing important national needs in this field.

This Committee has shown strong support for these programs in the past. I believe that recent developments only underscore the importance of training specialists in foreign languages and cultures who can provide help to the government, the private sector, and the media and who can communicate across cultures on our behalf.

In my testimony today, I hope to do three things. First, to provide some idea about the number of international students who study at American colleges and to describe the process by which they are granted a visa to come here. Second, I will outline a number of changes to tighten the student visa process in a way that will address specific problems without making it impossible for foreign students to enroll at American institutions. And finally, I will discuss some of the broader issues – such as the need to increase the level and amount of international expertise and foreign language competence – that our nation urgently needs to address.

I am particularly interested in issues related to international education for both personal and professional reasons. Before I assumed the presidency of the American Council on Education last month, I was Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, Madison for eight years and a faculty member at that same institution for 25 years before that. As one of the nation’s leading research universities, UW Madison always had a large number of international students, in recent years often more than 4,000 in one academic year. Without exception, I found them to be diligent and hard working individuals who contributed significantly to the academic and social life of the campus. They also brought an important element of diversity to our institution and helped expose American-born students to the world that they would encounter after graduating from college.

In addition, I have a deeply personal interest in this issue. I first came to the United States on a student visa in 1960 to earn a Ph.D. in geography at Wisconsin. At the conclusion of my Ph.D. program, the University informed the Immigration and Naturalization Service that I had graduated and I received a letter from the INS giving me thirty days to leave the United States in accordance with the terms of my visa. After living abroad for three years (again, consistent with the terms of my visa), I returned as an immigrant and became a citizen in 1976.

These experiences have given me a unique vantage point to appreciate the benefits that accrue to international students, American students, and the university community when we invite them to study at our institutions.

It goes almost without saying the entire nation benefits from international education. For example, the enormous advances in computational sciences in the 1980s that helped fuel the American economic boom in the 1990s would not have occurred without the student and faculty exchange programs that brought so many talented people to this country. The current revolution in biomedical research that has laid the groundwork for enormous advances in the quality of life in the years ahead is also benefiting from an influx of exceptionally able foreign students and scholars.

But it is not just the discoveries and the sharing of scientific knowledge that is significant. Equally important, I believe, is the formation of working relationships. Science is increasingly a collaborative endeavor and the establishment of personal and professional relationships that international education fosters will pay dividends throughout the professional careers of all who are involved in it.

More generally, the chance to study at an American college is often a life-altering experience for those who have the opportunity. Many individuals who do so – such as Mexican President Vincente Fox, United Nations Secretary General (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Kofi Annan, former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, and Jordan’s King Abdullah – make an impact in their home countries and throughout the world. But even those who do not assume such exalted positions leave with a deep appreciation for the people of the United States and for the benefits of personal freedom, market economics, and democracy.

The benefits of having international students enrolled at American colleges accrue to native born students as well. For many young people, the first opportunity to have a sustained relationship with an individual who was born outside the United States occurs when they enroll in higher education. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, that contact with the broader world is an important factor in the intellectual and social development of young adults.

The Number of International Students. Let me put the number of international students in perspective. In 1999, 31.4 million individuals were admitted to the US with some type of visa. Of that total, 570,000 were admitted on student visas. 560,000 of the student visas were for academic study (known as "F" visas), and roughly 10,000 were for vocational training (or "M" visas). This means that international students accounted for less than 2 percent of the total visitors with visas in that year. In addition, 275,000 visas ("J" visas) were issued to scholars and researchers who visited the United States to conduct research or to further their education. Many – though by no means all – of the individuals who received a "J" visa are based at colleges and universities.

These numbers illustrate that while the number of international students is large, it is a small proportion of the total number of visas that are issued. It is important to see student visas as but one part of a much larger picture.

Admission of International Students to the United States. Let there be no doubt about our position: the federal government has the right and responsibility to protect the safety and security of the United States by deciding who should receive a visa – any type of visa – to visit this country. For the reasons noted above, we favor having as many international students enrolled at American colleges as possible. However, we do not want to enroll any student that the federal government believes poses a security risk.

Colleges that admit and enroll international students have an obligation and a responsibility to work cooperatively with the federal government in keeping track of those students. As I will describe below, we have done this for decades and take that obligation seriously.

The process for determining whether an international student gets a visa is straightforward. An international student who has been admitted to an American college receives an I-20 form from the admitting institution. The student takes this form to an American embassy or consulate overseas and applies for a visa. State Department officials review the visa application, conduct background checks, and in many cases, interview potential visa recipients before making a decision.

Without the I-20 form, no visa can be granted. However, having an I-20 does not guarantee that a student will receive a visa. State Department officials in US embassies and consulates overseas have total and complete discretion to award or deny student visas. The primary consideration in the award of a student visa is generally whether the responsible consular official believes that the student is likely to return to the home country at the completion of the educational program.

Student visa denials can be commonplace. This year, for example, even before the tragic events of September 11th, the percentage of student visas denied by the US embassy in China increased from 18 percent of the total in 2000 to 40 percent in 2001.

In light of recent events, I assume that the worldwide visa denial rate will increase in the months ahead. While we are understandably disappointed when visas are denied, the decision is totally in the hands of the consular officials and we would not purport to suggest contrary judgments.

In addition, the State Department maintains a "Technology Watch List." Students who indicate that they wish to study in a field that is on the Watch List – for example nuclear engineering – are subject to particularly careful scrutiny before a visa is granted.

In recent years the number of visa requests has grown dramatically but the number of consular officials has not changed significantly. This means that the amount of time that consular officials can spend with each visa applicant has decreased. My personal experience may be instructive. When I was interviewed at the US embassy in London in 1960, my interview lasted 15 minutes. Today, overworked consular officials generally devote less than two minutes to each interview.

This is hardly sufficient time to make fail-safe decisions about the granting of a visa. For this reason, we believe that the number and size of US consular offices overseas should be increased sharply to permit more extensive background checks and more extensive interviews. No visa decision – a denial or an approval – should be made without adequate time for a thorough review.

Once an international student receives a visa and enrolls, colleges must collect and maintain a significant amount of information about the student. Upon request, we must provide this information to the INS. Sometimes the request comes in writing and other times it is made verbally. In some cases we are asked to provide information about a single student and in other cases we may be asked to supply information on a broader group of students – for example, all those who are studying chemistry. As part of their visa agreement, students agree to provide information to the institution that may affect their visa status. The information that they provide and that we maintain includes the following: name; address; date and place of birth; application materials, including the completed application form; date studies began; enrollment status (full- or part-time); field of study and degree program; and expected termination date. In addition, we maintain financial information about international students. Because we collect and keep so much data, the federal government has more extensive information available to it about international student and exchange visitors than it does about any other class of visa recipient.

Colleges used to provide this information to the INS. However, since the agency had no way to compile and store this information, it found itself drowning in unused and unusable data. As a result, in 1988, INS told colleges to keep collecting the information and to provide it upon request but dropped the requirement that we share data with them on a regular basis. That arrangement has continued until the present time.

After the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, Congress instructed the INS to develop an electronic database to facilitate the rapid sharing of information about international students. In response, INS began to develop the Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students, commonly known as CIPRIS. Under this system, colleges are to notify the INS of an event that may change the status of an international student. (For example, if a student fails to enroll or re-enroll, changes majors, drops below full-time status, graduates, or applies for a work permit, colleges would have 24 hours to notify the INS.) With this information, INS could take appropriate action with respect to a student’s eligibility to remain in the United States. This tracking system is now known as the Student and Exchange Visitor and Information System (SEVIS). It is now being tested in several regions on the country.

ACE and most other higher education associations have never opposed the idea behind SEVIS – an electronic exchange of information with the federal government regarding international students – and some 20 campuses have participated in a pilot test of the system. Indeed, we already collect and maintain most of the required information. However, we have repeatedly expressed our conviction that SEVIS should be designed in a way that it does not itself become a barrier to the enrollment of international students in American colleges. Regrettably, INS has never been sensitive to these concerns and we have been forced to turn to Congress to get straightforward administrative matters resolved. The result of this clumsy implementation is that SEVIS is overbudget and behind schedule.

We believe that prompt implementation of this database is the most important step the federal government can take to improve the timeliness of the information that it has about international students and exchange. Senators Feinstein, Kennedy, Brownback and others have recommended that the federal government provide the remainder of the funds needed to finish development and implementation of this database. We strongly support this recommendation.

The long-term funding of SEVIS – the annual operating costs after development – also needs to be addressed. Because the program is addressing a national priority – reduction of the risk of terrorism – we think that the annual operating funds ought to be provided through an annual appropriation to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) rather than by imposing a fee on students as the law currently envisions.

However, if the student fee model is to be maintained, it is important to have an effective and efficient means to collect the fee. Therefore, we suggest that any fee be collected by the State Department at the same time that the student pays the fee currently required to obtain a visa. The State Department is equipped to receive money in foreign countries (unlike the INS and colleges) and visa recipients already pay a fee before they receive their visa. We recommend that a higher fee be set for visa recipients who will be included in the SEVIS database ("F," "J," and "M" visas) and that a single combined payment be made to the local embassy or consulate. Students should be registered in SEVIS when the fee is paid. This approach would be the simplest administratively and would get the student registered in the database before they leave their home country. INS and the colleges would know to expect the student and INS could double-check the student’s registration when the visitor arrives in the US. Colleges would be alerted to expect the student and would promptly notify INS if the student did not arrive on campus soon after entering the US.

In addition to providing the funds necessary to complete the development and implementation of this database, we recommend that the several additional steps be taken. These include:

Requiring INS to develop a timeline with interim deadlines for the implementation of the SEVIS system. This will allow Congress, colleges and the public to monitor the progress that INS makes in implementing this system. If delays occur, prompt corrective action can be taken. Moreover, publishing a timeline with interim deadlines will enable all parties to determine if the assumptions being made by INS about implementation activities outside the agency’s control – such as the amount of time being allowed to modify campus information systems – is adequate.

Requiring INS to provide each college with a list of student or exchange visitor visa holders who entered the country on the relevant Department of State form (I-20 or IAP 66) issued by that institution and requiring that each college promptly confirm that the students and/or exchange visitors have arrived on campus.

Requiring designated school officials to comply with any revised responsibilities imposed by INS or lose authority to issue I-20s.

Taking special precautions (more extensive background checks, delayed issuance of visas, etc.) with respect to student and other visas applicants from countries on the State Department’s watch list of states supporting terrorism.

As noted above, while some legislative provisions dealing with student visas may be desirable, it is important to see student visas as a relatively small subset of all classes of visa. We believe that several changes that would affect all visa holders are worth considering. For example, S. 1518, introduced by Senator Bond, calls for the immediate establishment of the Integrated Entry and Exit Data System Task Force as authorized by the Immigration and Naturalization Service Data Management Improvement Act of 2000. We think that this entry-exit tracking system – which would be integrated with state and federal law enforcement databases – would be valuable in helping monitor all visa recipients.

In many ways, the most important step to improve the issuance of visas is simply to increase funding for consular affairs activities at US embassies abroad. These funds would be used to hire additional staff, increase the number and frequency of background checks on all visa applicants, and improve facilities. Currently, these offices are overworked and under-funded and they clearly need more resources. Not only is this step crucial, it is easily accomplished.

Reducing the possibility that a student could receive more than one I-20. Like many American students, international students often apply to multiple colleges. Since many schools issue an I-20 when they send a letter of admission to the student, it is possible for one international student to receive multiple I-20s at the same time. Of course, only one I-20 is needed to obtain a student visa. However, unused I-20s could easily be sold in the black market or given to others and used in a fraudulent effort to gain entry to the United States. To reduce this possibility, some observers have suggested eliminating the possibility that an individual might receive multiple I-20s.

We believe that the best way to accomplish this goal is to stop giving I-20s directly to students. Therefore, when a student is accepted, we propose to send the I-20 to a US embassy or consulate identified by the potential student. As under current practice, the student would go to the appropriate embassy or consulate to apply for a visa and a visa would only be issued if a valid I-20 were on hand. Multiple I-20s issued on behalf of the same student would be destroyed by the embassy.

If a visa is issued, the embassy or consulate would return a copy of the I-20 to the sending institution to alert the college to expect the student. Such a step would provide an excellent mechanism to help schools and the INS identify the small number of students who receive a visa but who fail to enroll.

To facilitate this process, we recommend that each American embassy or consulate be asked to identify a "Student and Exchange Visitor Coordinator." The name and address information for this individual (including the APO/FPO address) should be posted on the State Department Web page to permit schools with questions about specific visas to contact the appropriate person directly.

Ensure that the national need for international experts and expertise is readily addressed. In addition to tightening the system by which visas are issued, we recommend that Congress ensure that our educational system continues to train the international experts and has the knowledge base necessary to meet our country’s needs related to national security, foreign policy, and economic competitiveness. At present, the quantity, level of expertise, and availability of trained personnel do not meet national strategic needs at home or abroad.

America has faced this challenge before. During the Cold War, higher education responded to the nation’s needs for foreign languages and international expertise thanks to modest incentives in the National Defense Education Act, the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (Fulbright-Hays), and the Higher Education Act. Federal support for these efforts was crucial because state governments and the private sector were unable to invest the resources necessary to meet the national needs.

Developing the international expertise the nation needs will require multiple strategies. At the top of the list, however, is adequate support for the existing foreign language, area and international studies, and international business education programs authorized by the Higher Education Act. Just as the federal government maintains military reserves to be called upon when needed, it should ensure that it has the international expertise to call upon in times of crisis. Expertise cannot be invented. Nor can it be produced quickly. It must be cultivated and sustained.

To accomplish this, we strongly urge this Committee to adopt four goals for the coming decade:

To significantly increase the number of experts with high-level proficiency in foreign languages, international and area studies, especially those relating to non-Western nations and cultures.

To expand the international knowledge of faculty and students in professional and technical fields such as business, education, environment, crime and terrorism, economics, health, and information technology.

To increase the diversity of students that major in international fields and foreign languages and who pursue careers in international service.

To expand the capacity of colleges and universities to maintain and update our international knowledge in a wide range of disciplines and fields that are vital to US national interests and economic competitiveness on a continuous basis.

As part of this effort, we encourage this Committee to instruct the Department of Education to make international and foreign language education a higher priority and to devote an appropriate level of administrative and program resources to this task.

Over the last 50 years, efforts to enable foreign students to study at our campuses and to ensure that our nation had the necessary expertise to address national security and economic issues have paid enormous dividends. It is apparent that we must now review our current activities in order to identify those that need to be strengthened or modified.

I do not mean to imply that the federal government bears the full burden of this reassessment. Colleges and universities share important responsibilities in this effort. We need to reconsider the extent to which we adequately prepare students to understand and even anticipate the international forces that play such a central role in our world. International education, study abroad opportunities, and foreign language instruction will have to be a higher priority in the years ahead. Partnerships between higher education institutions in the US and the developing world should be fostered. We must reach out more to local public schools. Colleges must reassess the nature and volume of international research activity. And we must reexamine the steps we take to monitor the activities of those who visit our campuses on student and exchange visas.

At the same time, colleges and universities, states, and even philanthropic foundations cannot undertake these activities successfully without federal leadership. The nation faces a national challenge and, therefore, the federal government must play a central role in articulating the specific needs and defining the goals that we will pursue.

The higher education community looks forward to working with the members of this Committee in this effort in the years ahead.