WASHINGTON – Local universities and language schools are anxiously waiting to see how stricter immigration policies likely to come in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks will affect their international student bodies — and their schools.
Maryland hosted 11,941 foreign students who, with their dependents, contributed $304.5 million to the state’s economy between 1999 and 2000, according to an association of international educators. Maryland had the 10th- highest foreign student economic contribution in the nation.
But proposals being discussed in Congress — from a six-month moratorium on foreign student visas to fully implementing an electronic database that tracks international students — have school administrators on edge.
“We do not know what is going to happen, but we do know it will take longer to get a visa,” said Barbara Varsa, assistant director of International Education Services at the University of Maryland. “In the meantime, we are watching and waiting — talking to colleagues.”
Varsa recently urged campus departments to speed up their admissions decisions on international graduate students for the upcoming spring and fall semesters. But she said some departments still worry they will not get an incoming class of international students.
Enrique Vina, the chief executive officer of Lado International College, an English school catering to foreign students, said the usual delays and denials of visas have gotten worse in the weeks since the attacks.
Enrollment at his school’s Silver Spring center has fallen by about 15 percent, he said, as the Immigration and Naturalization Service is “really getting their act together” and is more thoroughly checking applicants.
Vina and others worry that foreign students will become the scapegoats in the war against terrorism while other visa holders will undergo less scrutiny. He said students really account for only a small percentage of visas in the country and they face a series of financial checks, which tourists applying for a visa do not.
But that does not mean that schools are opposed to stiffer security measures.
Many said that since the attacks they have become committed to widespread implementation of the Student Exchange Visitor Information System, a database designed to track international students, although they remain concerned about how it will be funded.
Bill Fish, a Latin American representative for NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said it is critical that the government fund the system. His organization, which was founded in 1948 as the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers, is strongly opposed to plans to make students foot the bill.
Fish also said a plan to require that students pay the fee on the Internet with a credit card is a double whammy: Many potential students may not have access to either credit cards or computers.
Other proposals may not come to pass: After her proposal for a six-month moratorium on student visas provoked loud opposition, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D- Calif., quietly withdrew the measure.
But Fish said that proposals like the credit card fee that make the student visa process so cumbersome will just encourage students to go elsewhere.
“We lose students,” he said. “But we also lose future friends in the international community.”