“In order to welcome international students and scholars in the fall, as competitor countries are doing, we urge the State department to provide predictable and consistent consular services; maximise alternatives to in-person visa interviews by providing waivers and virtual interviews; extend visa eligibility waivers; authorise staff overtime and increase hiring; and initiate meaningful engagement with outside stakeholders and agencies,” he wrote.
“We are at a critical point in the academic calendar when international students and scholars must make visa appointments and plan their travel to the United States. While some US consulates are reopening, most are still operating at lower capacity levels, and there remains limited access to visa appointments.
“Prospective students cannot be certain about whether their visas will be processed in time to begin their studies”
“Prospective students cannot be certain about whether their visas will be processed in time for them to travel to the US to begin their studies. While we appreciate that a National Interest Exception for international students has been created, the processing of these visas in a timely way continues to be a challenge.”
The letter was signed by 24 senators including Padilla and addressed the ongoing issue of visa processing delays at US embassies around the world. Delays have also been seen in the US this year with regard to OPT applications.
The processing issues within the State department have not just affected visas however; US citizens are currently waiting up to 18 weeks for passport renewals, with those paying extra for the expedited service still looking at 12 weeks waiting time.
The State department has blamed Covid-19 for the delays.
The letter also highlighted the challenges international students are facing studying abroad as grounds for their prioritisation.
“There are also practical barriers to online learning by international students while physically outside the US: not all countries have reliable electricity or internet access, and time zone differences require some students to appear online for classes in the middle of the night,” it stated.
“There are also countries that limit access to certain information or websites, while the US also bars the sharing of certain information with other countries.
“While we recognise that the Covid-19 pandemic remains a challenge, other competitor countries have issued clear guidance for international students, and we urge the State department to do everything it can to expeditiously process student visas.”
Among their recommendations were to “implement a policy of international student and scholar visa prioritisation”, to “maximise alternatives to in-person visa interview[s]” and to “provide flexibility for class or program start dates”.
“The US prides itself on having a higher education system that attracts the world’s best and brightest. In turn, we benefit from the diverse perspectives and varied contributions they make to our economy, campuses, and communities,” said NAFSA executive director and CEO, Esther D. Brimmer told The PIE News.
“But without swift action, America faces the possibility of another semester – and possibly a year – with very few new international students and scholars arriving to learn and engage at our colleges and universities.
“We applaud senator Padilla for his leadership on this matter, and the more than 20 senators who joined him in signing onto this important letter. We appreciate each of them for lending their added influence on a matter of vital importance to the US economy, global competitiveness, and higher education.”