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International students face greater visa hurdles

The federal government's new tracking system for international visitors and the changes to its visa application process have created additional hurdles for MIT's international students and the offices that support them. But Associate Dean Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook, director of the International Students Office, reports some brightening of the horizon.

Visa delays for new and continuing students were shorter by half compared to a year ago. On average, students waited six weeks to two months for a new or renewed visa--significantly less time than the three to four months it took in 2002. Prior to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, it took from a day to a couple of weeks for most students to get a visa. Security measures enacted since then require all men under 45 and both men and women from some countries to submit a considerable amount of personal information, which is then verified by the U.S. Department of State.

"The State Department at the consulates did not get new staff or increased budgets to do this [additional work]," said Guichard-Ashbrook about the new security measures. "Gone are the days when you could walk into a consulate and get your visa the next day."

Out of 800 new international students and 500 or so returning students who went home during the summer and had to apply for or renew their visas, only 30 were delayed beyond MIT's Registration Day on Sept. 2. Most of the visa requests of those 24 incoming students were "out-and-out denied," Guichard-Ashbrook said, because they didn't get the funding they had hoped or because of questions about their immigration intent.

Only a handful of returning students still have not arrived; three are delayed by security checks and the others for reasons unknown to Guichard-Ashbrook, who gets information about delays from the students themselves.

In addition to coping with the delays of admitted students, the International Students Office (ISO) has dealt with the federal government's new Student and Exchange Visitor Information Systems database (SEVIS), which became operational in January.

The ISO recently succeeded in fulfilling the most demanding of two federal reporting requirements for SEVIS. Current address and status information for all 2,800 or so continuing international students and their approximately 500 dependents--as well as for alumni who graduated within the past three years and have remained in the United States on F-1 practical training or J-1 academic training visas--had to be entered into SEVIS by Aug. 1.

"Transitioning current students onto the new system was an arduous process because we had to update information about their funding, find students who were working off campus, and get home-country and current U.S. addresses," said Guichard-Ashbrook. "In addition, for the first time, we had to provide information and issue immigration documents for all dependents of students. It was an extremely labor-intensive process, which through the spring was compounded because SEVIS kept crashing."

Another SEVIS deadline for the ISO was Friday, Oct. 3, when registration confirmation for all international students had to be reported for the first time. About 25 percent of MIT's students are international (9 percent of undergraduates and just under 40 percent of graduate students). Last year, MIT had 2,819 international students.

The information in the SEVIS database is shared by the Department of State (including consulates and embassies); the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, formerly know as INS; the sponsoring institution (in this case MIT); and the Social Security Administration. Other government agencies may be given access to the information in the future, including the Internal Revenue Service.

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