Tuesday, September 10, 2002

Restrictions tighten on foreign students

Educators fear rules to combat terrorism could cause an international brain drain

By Kristina Goetz kgoetz@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        After two years of hard study at home, a Chinese student is still waiting on the visa he needs to enroll at the University of Cincinnati this fall.

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The Year America Changed
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Tuesday: The danger of losing foreign students and the benefits they bring.
Wednesday, Sept. 11: A special tribute to Tristate firefighters.
Thursday: How Tristaters honored the anniversary.
        A coed from Ghana faces complicated new rules to get the Social Security card she needs to work while studying at Cincinnati State.

        A UC student from Egypt has other worries: How long will Arab students like himself endure the hostile stares before they decide to pick up and leave?

        As security measures have tightened in the year since Sept. 11, so too have problems for foreign students at the nation's colleges and universities. The wait for some students to get into the United States has grown longer. And when they arrive, foreign students' actions are more closely monitored - all in an effort to keep potential terrorists out.

        Now, some American educators are beginning to have a new concern: Not that international students will undermine homeland security, but rather, that the best and brightest won't come.

        Their loss could be profound, threatening to dull America's edge in scientific and technological research, experts say. International students make enormous contributions to hard sciences such as engineering, physics and computer science - areas that American students choose less often.

        “Like it or not, higher education in this country will change,” says Ron Cushing, director of international student services at University of Cincinnati. “From the air we breathe, to the food we eat, to the transportation we use, to the medicine we take, these things are all made better, safer, and more efficient through the intellectual contributions of international students.”

        It's too soon to say what impact the new restrictions will have. A recent online survey by the Institute of International Education shows foreign student enrollments are either rising or steady. At UC, enrollment numbers aren't yet final, but dozens of foreign students still are undergoing extra security checks at home.

        “For some of them it's going to be down to the wire whether they get here on time,” Mr. Cushing says.

Thousands come here

        More than 547,000 foreign students attended U.S. colleges and universities in 2000-2001, a record number, according to the Institute of International Education. Last year, they spent $11.5 billion on tuition, fees, housing and living expenses - up from only $3.5 billion in 1986.

  Since Sept. 11, 2001, new rules have been implemented or proposed affecting international students and scholars. Here is a sampling:
  • The USA Patriot Act, signed into law by President Bush on Oct. 25, requires all countries whose citizens want to enter the United States to have machine-readable passports by 2007. This could prohibit enrollments from countries that do not comply.
  • The Interagency Panel for Science and Security (IPASS), a presidential directive signed May 7, could deny or substantially delay student and scholar visas to people who study and do research in certain fields.
  • The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, signed into law on May 14, requires students to provide more information in order to obtain visas. Universities also now have greater reporting responsibilities with the U.S. State Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service.
  • A proposed immigration rule would make the student visa category more restrictive. Students would not be allowed to enter the United States more than 30 days before classes start. And those who interrupt their study would have to leave immediately with no grace period.
  •   Source: International Student Services Office, University of Cincinnati
        In Ohio, their net contribution was $353.2 million in 2000-01. In Kentucky, it was $74.3 million.

        Across the Buckeye state, international students number as many as 18,502, according to one estimate. Ohio State University has the third-largest foreign student body of any four-year public institution with a doctoral program, trailing only Purdue University and the University of Texas at Austin.

        Here in Cincinnati, international students make up about 5 percent of the total student body at UC, the school with the largest number of foreign students in the Tristate.

        That may not seem like a lot, but their presence is keenly felt in arts and sciences, particularly in math, physics and chemistry. But they also make up about 15 percent of total students in the College Conservatory of Music.

        About one-fourth of UC's budget is generated from the federal government, which pays faculty to do research, much of which is done by international graduate students. International students make up almost 70 percent of graduate students in the college of engineering, for example, which does an average of $20 million worth of sponsored research every year.

        That research doesn't always go home with them. Locally, a UC-educated environmental engineer saved Cincinnati taxpayers $600,000 a year because of a procedure he developed for the Metropolitan Sewer District. Another's research is part of a project to help the Ohio Department of Transportation repair slab bridges.

        That impact is reflective of other schools nationally. According to the National Science Foundation, nearly 28 percent of the science and engineering doctoral degrees in 1999 were awarded to international students.

        “We really count on (them) to get the research done,” says Roy Eckart, associate dean for the college of engineering. “I don't know how we'd get (it) done without them.”

        Knowing what's at stake, those like Mr. Cushing are working feverishly to implement provisions of the USA Patriot Act signed by President Bush in October 2001. One of numerous new security measures, it requires colleges and universities to computerize foreign student records so immigration and college officials can access them faster. UC will spend about $100,000 tracking foreign students this year.

        Beyond that, Mr. Cushing and others are explaining presidential directives, new legislation and policy changes to international students while ensuring the university is in compliance with the new regulations. Sometime in early fall, UC's international student office will begin a public information campaign that will include forums and memos to keep the university community updated.

        In the meantime, though, Mr. Cushing and his colleagues are faced with more immediate student problems. Visa interviews - part of the process of being admitted into the United States - that once took only a week may now take up to a month or more.

        Delays for renewing visas can take even longer, which means a student who takes a short trip home might not make it back for the start of a new term.

        “Embassies are extremely backlogged,” Mr. Cushing says. “We are extremely concerned about how many that have been admitted are actually going to get visas and be here.”

Sensitive fields

        Miaoqing Huang, 28, doesn't know whether his two years of work to get to the United States to earn a PhD in electrical engineering will pay off. Because the U.S. State Department considers the research he did for his master's degree in China a sensitive field of study, he is still awaiting word on his student visa to come here. He hopes UC will let him arrive up until the time classes start on Sept. 25.

        Mr. Huang's research at Shanghai Institute of Technical Physics involved China's weather satellite.

        “I just want to get the chance to study in the USA, not for anything else,” he wrote via email from Kunshan, which is in the countryside of Jiangsu province.

        As the deadline draws closer, Mr. Huang is feeling more and more anxious.

        “From the Midnight News of CCTV (China Central Television) on Sept. 11, last year, I got the news about the terrorist attack for the twin buildings in New York City,” he wrote. “I was astonished at the scene in the screen. At that time, I thought that this attack would change this world. Yet I didn't anticipate that the influence of this affair would reach me.

        “Now, I become the victim of terrorism, too.”

        Mr. Cushing says the State Department has not provided universities with a complete list of the growing sensitive areas of study so it's hard to prepare students for how long security checks might take.

        “It's top secret,” he says. “We can't even prepare a student in chemical engineering that they're going to be put through more extensive security checks. All we can do is speculate. If you're from Iran and you're studying nuclear engineering you're very likely going to be extensively checked.”

        After they arrive, students are facing ever-changing regulations.

        Baaba Sam, a 20-year-old nursing student at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, hopes to soon receive a Social Security number. She changed her visa status from a tourist to a student and applied for a Social Security card. But because she lost an important document, she'll have to apply again under new regulations implemented Sept. 1. The time frame she was given by which to receive the replacement has passed. Immigration officials have only said one thing: Wait.

        That wait is tough for Ms. Sam, who wants to get a part-time job so she won't be a burden on her aunt.

        “It's slow, really slow,” the Ghana native says.

        Ashraf Mohamed, president of UC's Arab Student Association and a fifth-year graduate student in aerospace engineering, says he has felt the difference since Sept. 11. When he goes out with his wife, he says people have yelled obscenities and ethnic slurs. He and his friends agree that extra security measures should be implemented.

        He says he doesn't plan to leave his program, but he can see why Arabs in wealthier countries in the Middle East might decide to stay home.

        “All our concern is, is that it has to be across the board for everyone,” the 31-year-old says. “To point to Arabs or a certain nationality and say, "These are the people we are targeting,' this doesn't feel right to us.”

        The American economy has, for generations, been fueled in part by foreign labor and intellect - from those who built the railroad system with their sledgehammers to the refugee scientists who used their brainpower to help the United States win the race to make the atomic bomb.

        More recently, foreign technicians have formed the nuts and bolts of the computer industry, says Roger Daniels, the Charles Phelps Taft professor of history at UC. The U.S. health-care system is dependent on foreign medical professionals and paraprofessionals. Even Saran wrap was created by an Indian chemist, Dr. Daniels says.

        Historically, the United States has moved to restrict immigration after real or perceived crises. In the mid-19th century it was Catholics, not terrorists. After World War I, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would have cut off immigration for two years.

        The United States is beginning to see competition from other countries recruiting brilliant minds. Both Australia and the Great Britain are not only making it easier for foreigners to get student visas, but are also offering lucrative scholarships.

        Beyond competition for intellectual capital and the race for new technologies, educators say it is important to foster the more fundamental value of openness and the exchange of ideas. Scientific research needs to be seeded, tested from a variety of viewpoints.

        “We certainly live in a very highly dependent world,” UC's Dr. Daniels says. “The more that we make these interactions difficult, the more problems we create for ourselves.”

        The impact on foreign policy is harder to measure but no less important, Mr. Cushing argues. He points to world leaders such as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, President Vicente Fox of Mexico and Prince Abdullah of Jordan and others who have studied here.

        “You want more of your world leaders being educated here, with our perspective, (to bring) goodwill about the United States,” Mr. Cushing says. “You want leaders of other countries to have access. That's how you build relationships.

        “These students and scholars are going to be the advocates for peace and change. You don't need to shut the door on them.”

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