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    The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus has one of the largest foreign student populations in the U.S., but more of those students are having trouble securing visas. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

Foreign students falling into ‘black hole’ of US visa delays; universities in Illinois seek Congress’ help

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A University of Illinois graduate student from China applied in May for a visa renewal, a process that typically concludes within weeks.

But the application went into “administrative processing,” and was still in limbo when fall classes started, forcing the student to withdraw from the fall semester. By the spring semester, there was still no resolution, prompting the student to withdraw again.

Such delays by the U.S. State Department in processing visas for international students in American universities have been a growing problem nationwide, said Paul Weinberger, the university system’s director of federal relations.

“This student has been waiting nine months to be done with administrative processing,” he said. “At that point, it really becomes a black hole. It becomes impossible to get information. … The student just really has to wait and hope.”

Citing long waits, denials and visa cancellations that take away from teaching time and academic progress, presidents and chancellors from nearly 30 colleges and universities in Illinois are pushing for lawmakers to do more to help international students and scholars who face new obstacles tied to immigration policy.

“International students and visitors enrich the academic experience for all students, while contributing to Illinois’ economy and competitiveness,” University of Illinois President Tim Killeen said in a statement Monday. “As part of our mission of driving innovation and economic growth in Illinois, we are committed to bringing the best and the brightest from around the world to our state.”

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has the fifth-largest population of international students in the country, according to the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange. More than 15,000 are enrolled in the university system, including the Chicago campus, according to university data.

Along with heads of other public and private universities, Killeen signed a letter to the state’s congressional delegation conveying “concern about changes in immigration policy and procedures that undermine the ability of our institutions _ and the state of Illinois _ to continue benefiting from the important skills and contributions of international students and scholars.” Leaders of DePaul, Loyola, Northwestern and Western, Eastern and Southern Illinois universities also signed.

The letter urges lawmakers specifically to consider expanding so-called dual intent to student visas, which would leave open the prospect of the students later seeking permanent U.S. residency. That way, the letter said, international students don’t risk denial for failure to prove they intend to return to their home countries.

“In the longer term, we look forward to working with you to enact comprehensive immigration reform that addresses these and other priorities,” the letter adds.

Last year, more than 53,000 international students went to colleges and universities in Illinois, according to the Open Doors report – contributing $1.9 billion to the state’s economy, according to an analysis by NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Recently, university officials across Illinois have noticed a “significant increase in obstacles” facing these students, according to the letter. The “systemic” delays, paired with uncertainty about the U.S. immigration system, are hurting efforts to recruit and retain “international talent” nationwide, the leaders wrote.

Both entry visas and temporary work visas have been increasingly delayed or denied, according to the letter, and some international students have had visas revoked or canceled with no notice and scant explanation.

“While we appreciate the need for vetting of international visitors, this situation creates tremendous uncertainty and difficulty for universities,” the letter states.

Fraser Turner, director of global initiatives at Loyola University Chicago, said in a statement Monday: “Loyola University Chicago does not waver in its support of these student and scholar groups and are alarmed by policy and procedural changes in the U.S. immigration system that make it more challenging for international populations to teach or study in our classrooms.”

Institutions in Illinois have also been affected by the quadrupling in denial rates for the H-1B work visas in recent years. The denial rate for H-1B visas, which fluctuated between 5% and 8% from 2010 to 2015, climbed to 24% in 2018 and 32% in the first quarter of 2019, according to data published by the National Foundation for American Policy.

The foundation found that denials increased because of a higher standard of proof for approving an H-1B petition following the April 2017 “Buy American and Hire American” executive order issued by President Donald Trump.

Weinberger recalled several other recent examples of students affected, including one graduate student who went home to China for winter break. While about to board a flight back to the U.S., the student was told the entry visa had been canceled, with no reason provided. The student is reapplying, but travel is now hindered by the new coronavirus and the student has withdrawn from the spring semester, Weinberger said.

An exchange student from Europe also expected to arrive in the spring, but the visa application went into administrative processing for too long.

“These stories are really difficult, and our hearts go out to the students and the families who are going through this,” Weinberger said. “They are left in limbo.”

Story By Hannah Leone (Chicago Tribune)

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