America’s loss a gain for rest of world

Consider the following scenario: A student is obliged to pay $100 to have personal information stored in an electronic database for the purpose of government monitoring. Then that student earns the right to pay an additional $120 for a three-month wait to apply for off-campus work — but only under the most extreme financial duress. Criminal? Hardly, unless having a certain major or place of birth is a crime. Such is the world of post-9/11 student-visa applicants.

International students who wish to study in the United States must not only undergo the inconvenience of personal interviews and various applications and fees, but have also become suspect on other issues, such as red-tagged majors. The U.S. State Department can put a “special hold” on visa applications from international students who take courses on nuclear engineering, lasers and electronic guidance systems.

Other fields on the “technology alert list” — created in 2000 by the U.S. government to prevent the illegal exchange of technological knowledge with military implications between nations — hit much closer to home. Chemical, biotechnology and biomedical engineering are all subjects screened by the U.S. government because they can be linked to biological weaponry and involve specialties such as virology, pharmacology and toxicology.

Sound familiar? With an ever-expanding list of sibjects on the alert list, the tide of paranoia sweeping the country can almost be considered tangible.

While screening the student visa pool may initially seem like a good idea (given that one of the 9/11 hijackers held a student visa at the time of the attack), over-regulated visa procedures imposed upon international students have served more as a deterrent to would-be learners than to killers. After all, how much respect can one expect from students from countries such as North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Libya and other nations labeled by the U.S. Department of State as “state sponsors of terrorism,” when such students are made to fill out supplemental forms that ask “Do you have any specialized skills or training, including firearms, explosives, nuclear, biological or chemical experience?”

While the effort is sincere, is it reasonable to expect that a terrorist will calmly and truthfully recite arms experience to a wearied administrator? On the flip side, how many resources can be funneled into constructive anti-terrorist measures when so much time and effort is already going toward the interviews and evaluations of almost all international students?

To take an example of a group of foreign students impacted by the rules, Middle Eastern undergraduate- and graduate-student rates at UCSD have dropped from 4.6 percent of the total international student body in 2000-01 to only 2.1 percent in 2001-02, and 3.6 percent in 2002-03. The international-student growth rate in the nation as a whole has slowed considerably, but not due to lack of interest. CNN reported last year that countries like the United Kingdom and Australia have benefited from aversive U.S. student-visa policies and have seen their international student enrollment rates rise. And that loss is great indeed.

Besides the obvious void left in U.S. academia and research, international students also contribute to the American economy by spending upwards of $12 billion annually in tuition and other expenses, according to the Institute of International Education. Those students who intend to brave the tense atmosphere now surrounding study in the United States must flock to their local U.S. embassy or consulate, despite their rarity and occasional nonexistence (in such countries as Tajikistan) abroad to do so.

Once there, they learn that while administrators advise students to submit their forms and schedule their interviews as soon as possible, students may apply for a visa only 90 days in advance of their registered start date. This causes problems for anyone who encounters a delay in the system, which may cause their appointments to be made anywhere between the next day and two months from then. The U.S. Department of State lists June, July and August as the busiest months of the year, and recommends that students “plan ahead.” However, given the time stipulations, and taking into consideration that most school systems begin the academic year in August or September, is this even possible?

“The loss of even one qualified student to another nation is one too many,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Maura Harty. “When a student goes elsewhere … we have lost the chance for a student to see the wonders of America through his or her own eyes.”

The paranoia surrounding tightened student visa procedures has become so overblown that it threatens to damage the vision of the United States as a healthy, thriving nation. International students exposed to such hype will not be able to experience the freedom and opportunity that characterize this nation.