Advocates And Universities Say Student Visas Have Become 'Increasingly Uncertain'

Harvard University (Joe Difazio/WBUR)
Harvard University (Joe Difazio/WBUR)

Immigration attorneys and higher education leaders say an incoming Harvard freshman's recent experience of being turned away at the U.S. border last week is not an isolated incident. Ismail Ajjawi, a Palestinian resident of Lebanon was denied entry into the U.S. Friday night shortly after arriving at Boston Logan International Airport.

Susan Church, a Cambridge-based immigration attorney, added that advocates and sources she's spoken with this week have reported additional cases like Ajjawi's over the last several days. Officials with the U.S. Department of Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment or confirmation of these reports.

Church said cases like this are concerning because international students have already undergone extensive background checks prior to arriving in the United States.

"For one or two Customs and Border Protection officers to be able to make the decision to deny entry after arrival is way too much power for one person to have over someone else's life," she said.

But some school leaders said even the process of applying and getting approved for a student visa has become increasingly uncertain in the last few years. Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow acknowledged the issue in a July 2019 letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan. He called the uncertainty around the application process fear-inducing.

"Harvard, like many leading research universities, attracts students, faculty, and researchers from across the globe," wrote Bacow. "Increasingly, visa delays are making these scholars’ attendance and engagement in the university unpredictable and anxiety-ridden. Students report difficulties getting initial visas — from delays to denials."

Leaders with the Council of Graduate Schools, a membership organization representing more than 500 institutions in the United States and Canada, said their member schools have been reporting similar frustrations.

"Anecdotally, we're hearing that students are experiencing either rejections or delays with their visa processing," said Lauren Inouye, the group's vice president of public policy and government affairs. She said while she hasn't heard about new graduate students being turned away when they arrive in the U.S., she has heard multiple reports of graduate students being turned away after returning from a campus holiday or research trip.

"Right now, the challenge is trying to find more information about the root cause behind these reports," she said.

A report released this year by the Council of Graduate Schools also shows that international graduate student applications are on the decline, though it did not speculate on the cause. Between the 2017 and 2018 admissions cycles, the number of international graduate student applications decreased by 4%. Graduate applications from Middle Eastern and north African students dropped by 14% in that time period, and applications from students living in India fell by 12%.

Inouye said in a written statement released with the study earlier this year that her organization continues to "monitor the issues including changes in immigration and visa policy with growing concern over the possible negative impact to the U.S.’s image as a welcoming destination for international students and scholars.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have reported similar trends. According to its data, the number of international graduate and undergraduate students in the higher education system dropped nationwide by 0.5% between March of 2017 to March of 2018. That decrease was not seen in Massachusetts, though. According to ICE data, the state saw an increase of more than 3,000 students in that time period.


Carrie Jung Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.



More from WBUR

Listen Live