LOS ANGELES – Amid declining numbers of international students at colleges nationwide, the U.S. State and Homeland Security departments have put measures in place to help speed up the issuance of student visas.
The departments have added more personnel in their offices and are now giving priority to students and scholars coming to the United States to study or research.
Security clearances will now be in effect for four years, which will make the reentry procedures "less onerous" if a student or scholar returns home, said Dixon Johnson, executive director of the University of Southern California Office of International Services.
"I do know of one student who was caught up in this and was able to get a visa quite quickly, but we really won't see the impact of these changes until the fall," Johnson said.
Overseas consulates issue international student and scholar visas, and potentially cumbersome security checks might take weeks or months to be screened through the Department of Homeland Security.
The process known as visa mantis screens students who are studying in fields related to national security.
"So many things that are studied at the graduate level in particular are multiple-use technologies," Dixon said. "Is someone in chemistry related to national security? Well, it depends on how you look at it."
Another process, known as visa condor, screens anyone whose country of origin is identified on a list of 26 countries around the world.
Recent changes have affected the amount of time it takes to acquire a visa.
"A country that sends a large number of students to the U.S. is China," Johnson said. "In China, visas are presently good for a period of six months and are only good for two entries to the U.S. If he wants to go home to visit his parents, he needs a new visa to come back."
Shin Yong Um, a sophomore majoring in economics, said it takes two to four months for him to obtain a visa. Um is originally from Korea.
"I don't like the policy," he said through a translator. "I have to renew it every single year. If it goes faster it would be much better for me."
A bill in Congress right now known as the American Competitiveness Through International Openness Now, or Coleman Act, seeks to change how student visas are issued and set "clear standards and protocols" for getting them, according to Sen. Norm Coleman's (R-Minn.) Web site.
The Coleman Act seeks to reverse declining numbers of international students studying at American universities post-Sept. 11, 2001. Last year, international applications to U.S. schools declined by 28 percent.
"The Coleman bill has to do with trying to make visa validities comparable around the world," Johnson said. "But it's difficult because it's a binational agreement. Our consular people are really overloaded."
"We live in an interdependent world, and it's becoming more obvious every day. Solving world problems requires cooperation across nationalities," Johnson said.