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Government proposes $100 fee for first-time student visa applicants

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New international students at MIT will have to pay an additional $100 to the U.S. government when making their visa application, if the new SEVIS fee becomes law early next year.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initiated the Student and Exchange Visitor Information Systems database (SEVIS) to track international visitors after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The database, which contains addresses and enrollment status for international students and scholars and their dependents, became operational in January this year.

According to Associate Dean Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook, director of the International Students Office, the DHS had planned to charge visa applicants a fee to fund SEVIS, but had not announced the details until Oct. 27, when the proposed SEVIS fee rule was published. A 60-day public comment period went into effect immediately; DHS will publish an interim or final rule after that period ends on Dec. 26.

"We always knew the fee was coming," said Guichard-Ashbrook. "What we didn't know was when or how much it would be or how they're anticipating applicants paying for it."

The proposed rule would allow applicants to pay the $100 by mail using a form provided, or with a credit card or other acceptable electronic method. Applicants would pay the fee before applying for a visa and present the receipt in person to a consulate's office.

"This is yet another fee that students have to contend with if they want to pursue academic programs in the U.S." said Guichard-Ashbrook, who expects the fee to go into effect in late January.

Although all international students are listed in SEVIS, the fee would apply only to new visa applications, not renewals.

The International Students Office recently succeeded in fulfilling the most demanding of two federal reporting requirements for SEVIS. Current address and status information for the 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 was Friday, Oct. 3, when enrollment 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.

Visa delays for new and continuing students this fall 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 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 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. Her office gets information about delays from the students themselves.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 5, 2003.

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