Kay Thomas, director of the U's International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), and staff member Craig Peterson advise international students and staff about potential issues related to traveling outside the United States. More than 3,200 international students study on the Twin Cities campus and more than 1,000 staff and scholars work or do research on all U of M campuses each year.
Post-9/11 blues at the U
What departments are doing to respond to travel delays for their international students and staff
By Gayla Marty
From Brief, May 12, 2004
Not long after New Year's Day 2004, two faculty members in the Department of Chemistry got e-mail messages from advisees.
The students, from China, had gone home for the break. Both reported that they were having difficulty getting their visas renewed to reenter the United States. They were not confident they would make it back by the first day of spring semester, January 20, when classes as well as their teaching assistant (TA) appointments would begin.
Within days, two more students notified their advisers with similar worries.
"Now we had four," remembers Mark Distefano, associate professor and director of graduate studies (DGS) for the department. "That's when I got involved."
Chemistry is one of the U's largest graduate programs. Of 230 graduate students, about a quarter are international. Each semester, the department employs about 100 graduate students as TAs; about 25 are international. Chemistry TAs teach lab sections, grade papers, proctor exams, and assist with lecture demonstrations. Because about 5,000 students enroll in chemistry courses each semester, TAs are critical to the department's mission. The mere possibility of a department staffing crisis was sobering.
Tips for departments
Work with students early in the term to ensure that any international students traveling overseas have worked with International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS).
Discuss with students the potential for having their return travel delayed, and discuss the possible ramifications of such delay.
Consider carefully the risks international students may bear in traveling overseas for research projects or conferences. Be sure students are aware of those risks.
Contact the ISSS office near the time of departure to determine whether the situation and regulations have changed since the last discussion with them.
--Christine Maziar, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost
The department must put in place a clear set of guidelines about what will happen if students are unable to reenter the United States.
Encourage faculty advisers to be aware of their students' travel needs and plans. It is essential for advisers to know when their students travel abroad.
Understand and convey to students that, first, a change in the nature of their appointment will likely have complex consequences, including insurance and long-term visa eligibility; and second, there is little the department can do to intervene with the government concerning visas.
--Mark Distefano, DGS, Department of Chemistry
The Department of Chemistry is no stranger to travel issues faced by international students. Travel between China and the United States has long featured unique requirements. But this time, the students were describing unusual requirements and delays.
Department chair Wayne Gladfelter immediately called a meeting that included Distefano, department administrator Stan Bonnema, and chemistry accounting head Anne Mockovac. The group did two things:
1. Planned to e-mail all the department faculty members to poll them about the whereabouts of their advisees, in order to find out how many were outside the country and get a better grip on the size of the problem.
2. Decided to wait as long as possible, but to remove from the payroll those student TAs who were not on campus on the first day of classes.
Results of the e-mail survey helped the department identify 11 TAs who were out of the country and facing delays with reentry. That meant about 10 percent of the department's TAs.
Problems were not limited to the chemistry department. Kay Thomas, director of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), reports that 22 students and scholars across the Twin Cities campus were stranded abroad over winter break, not only in China but in countries from Canada to Israel and Jordan.
All hands on deck
The Department of Chemistry worked with the Graduate School, ISSS, human resources, and the U General Counsel's office to explore issues and options as thoroughly as possible before taking action. Faculty members and TAs who had not gone home were notified that they may have to take on additional duties in the event some TAs could not return.
Barbara Shiels of the U General Counsel's office consulted with human resources on the case.
"A department doesn't have to pay an individual if he or she is not available to perform the service," says Shiels. "Does the department have to hold the job open? Technically, no. But the humane approach is to look for ways to fill in--but then the question is, for how long?"
The Graduate School advised the department to use Grad 999 registration for students who couldn't make it back in order to keep them "in status" with the U.S. government and avoid long-term visa problems. There were also questions of eligibility for insurance.
ISSS was able to describe what had been happening to other students and scholars traveling to China and to make referrals to offices on campuses to consult. The University's federal relations staff was informed and, in turn, contacted members of the Minnesota congressional delegation to describe the problem and seek support.
Make admission decisions now to avoid SEVIS fee problems
A looming June 1 deadline to implement a federal fee for SEVIS (see below) could leave newly incoming students and scholars stuck in limbo, because procedures for assessing the fee are unclear.
Local and national objections have been raised to the possibility that universities will be asked to collect the government fee.
For more information, contact ISSS at 612-626-7100 or see http://www.isss.umn.edu.
"The worst part was the utter frustration that there was no real mechanism or way for us to intervene," says Distefano.
Some of chemistry's 11 TAs did make it back to campus before the break ended. But when classes began on January 20, five were still stuck outside the country. For their sections, the department shifted some TAs out of upper division classes to cover shortages in lower division labs, and some faculty members went without TA support. Everyone was stretched thinner.
Ultimately, all the chemistry students were able to reenter the United States to continue their programs. Of the 22 known cases across the campus, all returned, although many were far past their expected date. The longest delay to date has been 11 months.
"We had never experienced anything like this before," says Thomas, who has worked in the field since the 1960s.
The difference that 9/11 made
The federal government has tracked international students and scholars for decades, but legislation for a national computer system to unify the systems that track them was not passed until the late 1990s. Development of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) moved along slowly. Then came the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. With the USA Patriot Act in October that year, SEVIS was put on a fast track.
SEVIS was developed so quickly that many technical problems are still being worked out. The system went live nationwide in 2003, but recent reports showed that many border officials for whom SEVIS was designed do not check or even have access to the data. What happens to any individual international student or scholar at a particular border entry still depends on many factors, including the knowledge, experience, and judgment of the border patrol on duty.
Another major change since 9/11--and the chief cause of the travel delays experienced by international students over winter break this year--was the recent requirement for interviews and security clearances at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad for anyone who requests a visa. The average time it currently takes to get a security clearance is 67 days. For some countries, it's much longer; in China, for example, it can take six months. Most U.S. consulates are completely understaffed for completing the interviews and clearances now required of them.
Goals of security clearances include identifying individuals who could constitute a threat to U.S. national security as well as preventing transfer of technology in fields identified as having "dual use," meaning they could have military or terrorist applications.
"One big problem for us is that the list of those fields is not public," says Craig Peterson of ISSS. "Up until August 2001, the list had identifiable fields of study, but now it doesn't. We can figure out from case experience, for example, that urban planning and landscape architecture are probably now on the list, along with biology and physics. But problems [with security clearances] also depend on the person's home country."
"The problem is that there are no boundaries in terms of discipline. Anybody can be characterized as a security risk," Distefano cautions.
Anyone whose visa has expired must get it renewed before reentering the United States. In one recent case, a scholar from China who attended a conference in Canada could not reenter the United States. He is stuck in Calgary with a wait that could conceivably last six months, according to Thomas. A special challenge is that visas for people from China last only three months, so almost any Chinese person in the United States who needs to leave must have a visa renewed before they can return.
Meanwhile, campus international offices have less ability than ever to intervene or make a difference in solving problems when students are stuck abroad. ISSS has enjoyed a good working relationship with local officials over the years and developed a level of trust. But despite its professional reputation, ISSS now finds little opportunity for recourse when things go wrong. In travel workshops this spring, Peterson encouraged travelers to buy tickets that can be changed and to schedule flights that arrive in the United States during regular business hours so it's possible for a border patrol with a question to call ISSS.
"It's pretty rare that we get a call," Peterson says, "but it happens."
ISSS staff is working with national groups, like NAFSA: Association of International Educators, as well as U government relations staff to suggest changes to alleviate problems. Ideas include making different processes to differentiate between new visa applicants and those applying for renewals; prescreening; and lobbying to increase funding for adequate consular staff.
Summer 2004: what departments can do
The preferred strategy, of course, is to prevent problems and to know what to expect.
Christine Maziar, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, strongly advises departments to send international students and scholars to ISSS before they travel.
"The situation is so fluid and varies so much depending on the traveler's circumstances," she says. She recommends several steps departments should take (see box, above).
ISSS has held several travel workshops this spring. At a recent workshop, Peterson gave visa-specific handouts to a group of about 20 students and scholars. After hearing general information, participants divided into smaller groups by visa type for more specific tips.
Thomas and Peterson also urge departments to stay informed about the developing situation for international students and scholars.
"Don't assume things are the same as they were a year ago or even a few weeks ago," says Thomas.
One of the most important things a department can do, according to Distefano, is make guidelines for what will happen in the event students or staff are stranded outside the country. The process of developing those guidelines will help identify more specific things that can be done in an individual department.
International Student and Scholar Services
190 Humphrey Center
Minneapolis, West Bank
International students, researchers, and staff who need to travel can request individual appointments. Guidelines and travel tips have been prepared for each visa type.
Gene Allen, director of the Office of International Programs--of which ISSS is a part--has become familiar with many of the issues at the University and across the country. He recommends ISSS staff as the best University resource for making informed recommendations due to their national contacts and their local experience with many individuals.
"For many questions, there are no definitive answers," says Allen. "For example, no one can predict whether an individual will encounter problems in [getting] a security clearance, even if all their papers are in order."
In the last six months, Allen says, the Association of American Universities presidents and other national organizations have taken the issue to key government people, such as Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, to convey how serious the impact is on their campuses.
"Secretary Ridge has acknowledged that there is a problem of balancing access and security," Allen says, "but no one should be misled that [this] means such problems have been corrected in the hundreds of U.S. embassies and consulates throughout the world. Proper balance between access and security is a very difficult issue that will not be resolved in a short period of time."
Next week: Part 2--The impact of 9/11 on international student enrollment on the U of M campuses and nationwide. See also: "Federal database to track foreign students is not being used as promised at U.S. borders," by Michael Arnone, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 15, 2004.