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Chinese Seeking Visas to Study in U.S. Are Being Rejected in Greater
By BETH McMURTRIE
Chinese students seeking visas to study in the United States are
being rejected in greater numbers than they were at this time last year, according to the U.S. State Department.
Government officials say applicants are being turned down for
legitimate reasons, and they expect denials to decrease as the
summer progresses. But some American universities are complaining of unfair treatment.
"If what we've been seeing for the last two to three weeks holds up,
we are in for a tough summer," said Kenneth A. Rogers, associate
dean of international programs at Indiana University at Bloomington and
chairman of a consular-affairs panel for NAFSA: Association of
More students come to the United States from China than from any
other country, and Chinese students have long received extra scrutiny
because many do not return to their homeland. Although that
information is largely anecdotal, one survey by the National Science
Foundation found that 91 percent of Chinese students earning
doctorates in science and engineering planned to stay in the United
States. In total, 54,466 students from China were studying in the
United States in the 1999-2000 academic year.
Mr. Rogers said a number of students had been turned down this year
because consular officers were making academic judgments. One
student was denied a visa, he reported, because an official didn't think it
made sense for him to attend a community college. In another
decision, which was later reversed, a consular official told a student there was no such place as Indiana University-Purdue University.
Christopher Lamora, a consular-affairs spokesman at the State
Department, said officers are required by law to look at applicants'
academic history to ensure that their intentions to study are
sincere. He gave the example of a hypothetical 50-year-old doctor who tried to enroll in an aquaculture program. The university might conclude that he is well qualified, but a consular official may suspect that he is
simply trying to get into the United States. Mr. Lamora also said that a number of visa applicants had provided fake credentials or doctored I-20's, the form that universities use to certify admission.
"We do not second-guess a U.S. academic institution's decision to
admit a particular foreign student," he said. "But the consular
officer has an obligation to ensure that the person is going to the
U.S. for the stated reason and that they are who they say they are."
The State Department normally does not release statistics on
visa-denial rates. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and the four
consulates in China, agreed to provide some data to illustrate the
problems they have encountered, and to show that visa-denial rates
are not as high as some suspect, Mr. Lamora said. "We have a
responsibility to our own staffs who get harassed and harangued to
put the record straight," he said.
Both the number of applications and the visa-denial rates have
jumped this year. From May 15 through June 20 last year, the five
visa-granting offices received 5,408 applications for F-1 visas for
students, and issued 3,946 visas. During that same period this year,
the offices received 6,535 applications and issued 3,801 visas. That
means denial rates jumped from 27 percent to 41 percent.
Applicants for J-1 visas -- for research scholars and professionals
-- fared slightly worse. From May 15 through June 20 last year,
consular officials received 1,107 applications and granted 682 visas. This year, during that same period, they received 1,495 applications and
granted 703 visas. The denial rate leaped from 38 percent to 53
Consular officials track only applications, not applicants. So if a
person applied twice, they would be counted two times in those
The outcome varies significantly by office. For F-1 visas, denial
rates this year for that one month period are as follows: Beijing,
41 percent; Shanghai, 49 percent; Chengdu, 16 percent; Guangzhou, 34
percent; and Shenyang, 54 percent. Applications to Beijing account
for nearly half the country total. Shanghai had the second-largest pool
of applicants; the other offices received fewer than 700 applications
Mr. Lamora said consular officials offered two explanations for the
increase in denials. First, many more undergraduates and high-school
students are applying for student visas. "It's going to be a lot
more difficult for a younger person earlier in his or her education to
explain to the consular officer why they're bagging the Chinese
educational system and going to the U.S., and making a case for why
they're coming back," he said.
And in the J-1 visa category, consular officials have seen an
increase in people from training programs for Chinese managers and
administrators, mainly in the public sector. They are seeking visas
to either teach or take a course at an American university. Those
people often are low paid and have poor English skills, and are sometimes ill-suited for the proposed work, Mr. Lamora said.
Embassy officials expect that by the end of the summer, the overall
visa-approval rate should match last year's, which was 65 percent,
Mr. Lamora said. Lawrence H. Bell, director of international education
at the University of Colorado at Denver and the East Asia liaison for
the NAFSA consular-affairs panel, said that's probably because many
applicants are able to secure a visa on the second or third try.
Still, many academics are frustrated by what they consider arbitrary
decision making. This past academic year, 9 of 10 Chinese
undergraduates who were accepted into an exchange program between Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and Hunan
University were denied visas. Yet just a few days earlier, officials
at the Beijing embassy who met with university representatives said
the program looked strong, said Timothy Diemer, the
international-services director at Indiana. The visa denials soured
Hunan on the program, he added.
American academics say visa denials hurt more than just the
students. Three of five Chinese teaching assistants expected this fall in
Michigan State University's department of statistics and probability
failed to get visas. As a result, said James Stapleton, director of
the graduate program, the department will probably have to cancel
some review sections.
Two female employees in the Shanghai consulate seem particularly
hard on visa applicants, academics say. Embassy officials did not comment on specific employees, but Mr. Lamora said most of the consular officers issuing visas are relatively new. "We acknowledge that
consistency and training are challenges," he said, but added that
all applications are reviewed by a senior official.
Mr. Rogers said he and others were working with David Hopper, the
consul general in Beijing, to try to better educate embassy staff
members on how university admissions decisions are made. And the
State Department has sent out at least two cables outlining what
constitutes a valid visa denial.
Because the State Department is reluctant to release data, Mr.
Rogers said universities must keep better track of such information if they
want to document unfair or inconsistent treatment. NAFSA's Web site,
http://www.nafsa.org, offers guidance for students seeking visas and
for their advisers.
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