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For US international students, pandemic uncertainty looms

Visa processing backlogs complicate academic plans

Students are seen at the University of Virginia in September 2020. International students face a challenging path to U.S. college campuses this year.
Students are seen at the University of Virginia in September 2020. International students face a challenging path to U.S. college campuses this year. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

American students heading to college campuses in the fall can expect some semblance of normalcy, thanks to loosened pandemic restrictions and readily available vaccines.

For international students planning to study in the United States, however, the road is more challenging.

Students from around the world starting U.S. programs in 2021 — or who began programs virtually in 2020 — must obtain a student visa from the U.S. embassy or consulate in their home countries within 120 days of the program’s start date. But many consulates are conducting limited operations or are closed entirely as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across parts of the globe.

Those that are open face lengthy backlogs after periods of closure since the pandemic began in March 2020.

“The majority of consulates are processing visas, but that doesn’t mean that they’re doing it fast enough to get the students here in time,” said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “U.S. consulates are just horribly backlogged right now.”

The State Department has taken steps to ease the process, including exempting students whose programs begin Aug. 1 or later from existing travel restrictions and prioritizing student visa appointments.

“As the global situation continues to evolve, the Department is continuously seeking ways to efficiently process visa applications around the world, consistent with both guidance from health authorities and with the U.S. travel restrictions currently in place,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We understand that this is a very difficult time for students who plan to study abroad.”

The department added that it was making “significant efforts with constrained resources” to return to pre-pandemic workload levels but could not provide a specific timeline for individual consulates.

Elizabeth Goss, an immigration lawyer who specializes in obtaining student visas, says it’s too early to tell how significantly the pandemic will curtail the plans of international students since the visa approval cycle for fall programs began relatively recently.

But some students who started the process have heard from their consulates that the only available appointments are in September — after most U.S. programs begin — and have had to negotiate for an expedited process.

“You’re working within a very constricted time period,” Goss said. “It’s a lot more hurdles and hoops that these individuals have to jump through.”

In China, which sends the most international students to the U.S. of any nation, consulates are up and running, although advocates expect security issues could interfere with visa processing for some Chinese applicants. In India, another major source of international students, consulates reopened after recently closing again for a month as a deadly wave of COVID-19 shook the country.

“You’ve got local restrictions that may impact how many people can actually be let into the facility, even if they’ve got the staff in place,” Goss said.

Visa delays also present problems for American universities, which often rely financially on international students who pay top sticker prices because most are ineligible for financial aid. A survey by the Institute of International Education found that new enrollments of international students plummeted 43 percent in the fall of 2020 because of the pandemic and related restrictions.

If international students cannot get to campus when their programs start, universities may have to continue offering some virtual learning.

“For institutions, the biggest thing that they’re concerned with right now is whether or not they’re going to have to continue to offer some sort of hybrid program of study for these international students who may not be able to get here in time for their program’s start date,” said Sarah Spreitzer, director of government relations at the American Council on Education.

Colleges and universities may also need to be flexible with vaccine requirements, including offering vaccines to international students who cannot access them at home and accepting vaccines developed by other countries that have not yet been approved in the U.S.

“Our return in the fall is still not going to look as normal, as, say, it did in the fall of 2019,” Spreitzer said.

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