Slamming the Door of Higher Ed 

Since 9/11, foreign enrollment rates at Bay Area colleges have declined dramatically because of both new restrictions and changing attitudes.

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Immigration critics argue that the loss of international students is a good thing for Bay Area colleges. "I don't think that's bad news at all," says Yeh Ling-Ling, executive director of the Oakland-based Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America, of the drop in foreign students. "American-born students do not have the ability to go to college in terms of space and money. American colleges' primary responsibility is to educate Americans."

Educators blame a variety of factors for the shrinking international student population, including, at UC Berkeley, skyrocketing tuition. All, however, name the increased difficulty of getting a student visa since September 11 as one of the major reasons. "I think all of the post-9/11 regulatory changes collectively have created the perception of an unwelcoming environment for international students and scholars," says Cal's Ivor Emmanuel. After it emerged that some of the 9/11 hijackers apparently had entered the United States on student visas, the government instituted a number of new visa fees and procedures and has enforced existing regulations more strictly. In some cases, like that of Daiane Busarello, that means students are denied entrance. Many more are allowed into the country, but only after waits and delays that have stretched up to a year or more for some. In a recent Cal survey, 59 percent of foreign students and faculty surveyed said visa problems or delays had forced them to alter travel plans and more than a third said they had to change their research plans.

Considering that students often have just a few months between their acceptance into college and their start date, such delays mean they must make plans -- buy plane tickets, quit jobs, give up apartments -- before they hear whether they got a visa. If they have to wait so long that they miss the start of school, like one current Cal student from Lebanon who asked that his name not be used, they must reverse all those plans. That can be an expensive and disappointing prospect.

The story of Alexandra Feist, a 27-year-old German and former au pair for a Concord family, illustrates the frustrations facing some foreign students trying to come to the East Bay. Feist spent hundreds of euros to apply for a student visa to study special education at Diablo Valley College. She waited for hours, sometimes in the rain, for three separate appointments at the US Embassy in Berlin. But when she finally made it in front of immigration workers, she says they spent just a few minutes glancing over her materials before denying her application. Feist had brought letters from family and a potential employer in Germany to prove that she did not plan to stay in the United States after school -- a common reason for student visa denials -- but she says the immigration workers appeared to have trouble reading the documents, which were in German. "Five minutes. That's all I got, and no chance to explain anything," said Feist during a short visit back to Concord this fall.

Schools that want to accept foreign students also face hurdles. The Pacific Boychoir Academy in Oakland is an after-school music program whose students have performed with the San Francisco Symphony and Opera among others. The academy wanted to accept a Polish boy to a new day school it opened this fall, but first needed approval from immigration officials to enroll foreign students. The immigration agency refused because the day school was new, according to a copy of a letter from the agency provided by the academy.

Getting into the country isn't the only obstacle, either, as former Cal chemistry grad student Xuesong Li found out. When Li went home to China last year to get married, he says he had to wait eight months for a security check before he could reenter the United States. By the time he was cleared to come back, Li's adviser had dropped him from his research project and he was not able to return to get his degree.

As word has gotten out about the difficulty and uncertainty involved in getting US student visas, international students are increasingly heading elsewhere. "I think more and more people are considering going somewhere else, including Canada or Britain," said Liu, the current Cal chemistry student. The numbers bear this out: At Cambridge University in Britain, for example, international students have increased by 55 percent since 2001. At the University of British Columbia in Canada, the number has risen 42 percent. And a recent New York Times article reported that many Asian students are now looking to their regional superpower, China, as an alternative to America.

Yeh, the immigration critic, argues that international students are staying away from the United States because of its faltering economy, not visa issues. "People abroad realize that America is in steady and rapid decline," she says. If, however, visa worries are part of the reason -- as some students have indicated -- Yeh says any concerns about losing foreign students are negligible compared to the need to enforce tight borders. "Tighter control is not going to stop, necessarily, international terrorism," she says, "but lax control, as we've seen on September 11, has caused many losses of life and hundreds of billions of dollars."

Screening would-be students more closely, and turning away students like Busarello and Feist -- even at the risk of turning the eyes of the world's youth toward other, newer, powers -- may keep out the next airplane hijacker or protect the country from illegal immigrants looking to overstay their student visas. But borders are traditionally porous things, where those with the most illicit motives often evade the rules and lines that catch the better intentioned, and critics of current immigration policies are wary of trading the hope of snaring elusive enemies for the benefits they say international students bring. "The pendulum has swung too far," says Cal State Hayward's Wallace.

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