HEARING OF THE HOUSE SUBCOMMITTEE ON 21st CENTURY COMPETITIVENESS AND SUBCOMMITTEE ON SELECT EDUCATION: TRACKING INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS IN HIGHER EDUCATION: A PROGRESS REPORT
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Mr. Kildee. I thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for this hearing today. I'm pleased to join you, Chairman
Tiberi, Mr. Hinojosa, and other colleagues to these hearings on the SEVIS system and how it is impacting international studies.
This is an important topic and deserves the attention of this Committee.
International students attending schools in the United States make significant contributions to diversity and learning on our campuses. I had the occasion of talking with the president of the University of Michigan yesterday from Ann Arbor, where I did my graduate studies, and she was greatly pleased by the students from overseas, because they really enhance the educational environment there in Ann Arbor. So it's a very important thing.
These same students also help our economy and develop businesses in our cities and towns. Those who return home after
their studies become leaders in their own countries. In addition, they also bring a respect for democracy back to their countries, helping foster governmental stability and free and fair elections.
Since 9/11, there's been a growing misperception overseas that the U.S. is not a welcoming place for academic international visitors. Proof of this misperception was made evident by the recent study of the Council of Graduate Schools. This study showed that once again there was a decline in the enrollment of international students in U.S. graduate schools.
This trend is troubling and needs to be addressed.
Fortunately, over the past year we have seen big improvements at the State Department and Department of Homeland Security in this area. These agencies have made great strides in streamlining the visa processing.
We're going to hear about some of these improvements today, in addition to the work that still needs to be done. Our unfinished work in this area is critically important. We have to do more to counteract the misconceptions of the U.S. abroad.
Those who are seeking to study in the fields of science and engineering are still facing major delays in receiving their visas because of security clearances.
While these security clearances are critical for maintaining our safety, we have to redouble our efforts to process individuals more quickly. If we don't address these issues, increasing numbers of international students at the highest levels will look for academic opportunities outside the United States.
Other countries are investing massive amounts of resources to develop and improve their systems of higher education. As
these systems develop, international students will have increased post-secondary opportunities at home also.
The potential impact on our institutions and our economy is huge if international students choose to attend institutions in their own country and not come here.
I think the balance is very important. I had the great opportunity in 1958 and '59 of doing graduate work in Islamic history at the University of Peshawar in Pakistan under a Rotary Foundation fellowship. And that was a great help to me--a great help, first of all, living in a different culture, a great culture, understanding real Islam. It's been helpful to me to this very, very day. And I think all of us benefit by having had some of that duality in our education both at home and then studying in another country, and we want to continue to encourage that. And I look forward to the hearing today.
I yield back the balance of my time.
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Mr. Kildee. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Going back to, again, my experience at the University of Peshawar in Pakistan in 1958-'59, even there, in those more gentle times and more gentle days, Pakistan had a very courteous, efficient, and friendly system of tracking students. There weren't as many students over there. I could recall when I would leave one political subdivision to go up to the Malakand agency to celebrate Eed, I would have to register where I was going, and it was done in a very courteous but very efficient way and a very friendly way. It sometimes took a while, because they insisted I take tea with them, too, as I went to apply for my application to travel.
And I think that in our system here, we want to have efficiency because we want to have, you know, the safety of our country, but also a courtesy and a friendliness, too, because these are people we want to welcome to our shores, and I think
that balance, all of you would want to maintain that balance. And I commend you for all your efforts you are making to maintain that, the safety of our country and the courtesy we extend to those who come to our country for study.
Mr. Cerda, you mentioned the increase in number in SEVIS. Are these students who are actually in the country now or in
the system to come into the country?
Mr. Cerda. The SEVIS system tracks the individuals that are in the country right now. And then subsequently, it goes through the duration of their program. Ultimately, if they move on to a different visa category or they depart the country, that closes out the record in SEVIS. So we are looking at active individuals here in the United States at this time.
Mr. Kildee. Would you be any way enumerating those who are in SEVIS but are not yet in the country? Are there two different categories, some who are still in process?
Mr. Cerda. The process starts with the issuance of the I-20, which is recorded in SEVIS. And then that leads to the issuance of the visa overseas. At the point of entry into the United States, that information then is--it's considered an active record. We get the notifications. At that point, the universities start working with us in terms of ensuring that the individual has appeared at the school, that they've maintained their records, and in situations of travel that there is permission for travel permitted in there.
So we consider those the active cases in our system right now.
Chairman McKeon. Mr. Edson, could you give us a few examples of where you changed the visa process as a result of your consultation with the academic community over the last several years?
Mr. Edson. Certainly. One of the primary changes that we made was to add additional resources to those special clearance
processes, even though they affect only a relatively small number of visa applicants, less than 2.5 percent of the 7 million we process a year.
That special screening for sensitive technologies does hit disproportionately science, obviously science students, but Chinese students in the higher sciences. So I think the primary change there was to strive for transparency in that process, to
strive to add enough resources and streamline the interagency dialog that's necessary to conduct those clearances, so that we
got back to something that is one faster, but also more predictable for the applicant. I mean, an applicant can usually put up with a 2-week clearance process if they know in advance that it's going to be a 2-week clearance process.
That was something we worked closely with the academic community on. The changes to our website and our data bases to allow our posts overseas to continually update their own wait times for appointments, for obtaining appointments. I think
that's been significant.
We have also--it's long been a policy, but beginning 2 years ago, we instructed our posts to make sure that they have separate appointment streams for students, so that a student can always get an appointment in time to show up for school. I
mean, no student should miss school because they had to wait for a visa appointment overseas. That's the goal and that's the
reality today. And that was largely as a result of the dialog with the academic community.
Mr. Kildee. Very good. I think within the needs of the safety of our country, that as much that we can do to lessen that uncertainty is a very, very important and a welcome thing. So I would encourage you to keep pursuing that.
Thank you very much. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
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Mr. Kildee. This will be a brief statement. I really think we have to get a better handle on numbers. I think there's been a real vagueness here. If I were one of the reporters over there, I wouldn't know how to write the story, because the numbers are rather vague, and they kind of shift around a bit.
Has the growth slowed since 9/11? I think to the degree you can get us some--I don't know why we aren't getting more significant numbers or meaningful numbers to us. I'm sure down the hallway at the baseball hearing they got better statistics
down there than we have in here.
So I would like to really have you work on some numbers so both the press and ourselves can understand has the growth
slowed down? Is there more students, less students, since 9/11? There's a certain vagueness yet I think that--I do think the
system has improved since we started our hearings, though, I think there's no question about that.
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Mr. Kildee. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you very much. Mr. Bell, you have mentioned that we have no articulated visa
policy and that there are severe dysfunctional areas between State and DHS. Are you more concerned about administrative and technology issues or policy issues?
Mr. Bell. I guess my concern is in both areas. The policy issue would have to do with the fact that there is no articulated policy, and we don't--it seems like one hand is saying stay away and the other hand is saying come in. And so there are some policy issues that I think would clarify that.
But it is also, in my view again, a communication issue between State and DHS in this very important area.
Mr. Kildee. The fact that there are two different departments, does that create a problem or does that help checks and balance?
Mr. Bell. Again, in my view, I think it creates a problem, because there is, again, from what I see, it seems like that the two are not getting along in this area. And so there's not a clear way to know what the direction is.
Mr. Kildee. As a corollary to that question, we got a certain vagueness as to numbers from the previous panel. They're kind of baffling and mysterious almost as if they didn't want to give the numbers. Can you help us some on that? Has the rate of growth, for example, slowed since 9/11, and should that be taken into consideration? Has the objective numbers increased or decreased? Do you have anything to help clarify that for the Committee?
Mr. Bell. I think I can lend some clarity. The numbers that he was using, I believe he said they were for F, J, and M visas. That would include all J-1 visitors, which are not always included in student numbers. It would include M visas, which were not included in the report from the Institute for International Education that the State Department was using. So there are different reports on different visa types that may have created the confusion over number. I and my association would be happy to provide an accurate list of what those numbers are. But they were for different visa types, I think is what the issue was.
But the absolute number, this is the first time that the absolute number in 30 years has gone down.
Mr. Kildee. The absolute number has gone down?
Mr. Bell. Yes.
Mr. Kildee. It's more than just a slowing down in the growth, then, right?
Mr. Bell. Correct.
Mr. Kildee. The absolute number has--
Mr. Bell. Last year we saw a slowing down in the growth, and this year's numbers actually--the numbers were reduced.
Mr. Kildee. Do you think that in general the system that they're working on, and apparently is still in process, is--has hope for success to really achieve what we really want as policy in this country?
Mr. Bell. I believe that it does. But again, what we must remember is that this is 2 percent of the total population. So in terms of understanding where people are within the United States, it helps for this 2 percent. We're doing a very good job of tracking a very small population. But in terms of will the system work and will it provide the information that's necessary? I think it has the chance for success.
But at the moment, it's operational, but I wouldn't call it working, particularly with data fixes, there's a huge number of data fixes, which means there is inaccurate data in the system because somebody's status may have changed, their course program may have changed. And so there's a lot of erroneous data laying out in the system as a result.
So it has a chance for success, but at the moment, I would say it's not successful.
Mr. Kildee. Dr. Mote, do you have any comments on any of my questions?
Dr. Mote. No. I think it's fairly clear. I mean, 49 out of 50 foreign people in this country are not on the system or are not students. In terms of overall security, I don't know if you really would put your security hopes on a 2 percent fix of a potential problem.
I think the cost here for creating an unwelcoming and unfriendly environment is potentially very high, and there's a sort of cost/benefit issue that needs to be looked at here. The cost to our security, as a matter of fact, and the cost to our economy, our way of life. I mean, one way to stop traffic deaths, by the way, is just to have nobody drive. It's a 100 percent sure fix. and I guess if we don't let in any foreign people, we won't have any foreign students that get involved in this issue. But there'll be another 49 people.
So I am very much concerned about the risk analysis on this. That is, how much we're expending to fix a problem and how important is that problem relative to the overall cost to our country in the long term.
Mr. Kildee. Thank you very much. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
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