NAFSA CEO Congressional Testimony on Syrian Refugees and Students

NAFSA CEO and Executive Director Marlene M. Johnson issued a statement and submitted the following testimony that calls on Congress and the Administration to offer safe refuge to Syrians. The testimony was submitted to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Judiciary Committee for hearings held on November 19, 2015.


Marlene M. Johnson, Executive Director & CEO
NAFSA: Association of International Educators

Submitted for the following hearings on November 19, 2015:
"The Impact of ISIS on the Homeland and Refugee Resettlement" before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee
"The Syrian Refugee Crisis and Its Impact on the Security of the U.S. Refugee Program" before the House Judiciary Committee

Thank you for the opportunity to submit this testimony. On behalf of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, I appreciate the opportunity to express our support for the Administration’s proposal to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. However, the United States has the ability and duty to open our doors to an even greater number of people in need. NAFSA urges the Administration and Congress to support policies that would welcome 100,000 Syrian refugees in the coming year, in addition to other global refugees. We also urge Congress and the Administration to take steps to ensure that Syrian students who seek higher education in the United States have a path to do so. The recent tragedies in Paris and Lebanon remind us that we must remain ever-vigilant against threats of violent extremism; however, closing our borders to Syrian refugees simply because they might share the same nationality or religion as some perpetrators of terror perpetuates fear and isolationism, while failing to recognize that the refugees are desperately fleeing violence themselves.

NAFSA is the world’s largest professional association dedicated to the promotion and advancement of international education and exchange. Our more than 10,000 members believe that connecting students, scholars, educators, and citizens across borders is fundamental to building mutual understanding among nations; preparing the next generation with vital cross-cultural and global skills; and creating the conditions for a more peaceful world. A commitment to fostering peace and security through international education demands that we go beyond providing the basic necessities of some of the world’s most vulnerable people. As an association that was founded to respond to the needs of European students following WWII, we recognize that in order not to lose a generation of minds to the ravages of war and terror, we must educate them.

As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” The United States has a proud history of promoting mutual understanding through international education and exchange. In the decades since World War II, U.S. institutions of higher education have welcomed and educated millions of students from all over the world, with many becoming world leaders and some of our closest friends and allies. These students are among our greatest foreign policy assets, for it is through their time here that they come to understand our country firsthand.

The United States should move quickly to facilitate the matriculation of eligible refugee students to study at U.S. institutions of higher education. Specifically, to ensure Syrian students are able to study in U.S. institutions of higher education, Congress must call on the Administration to streamline the F-1 Visa process in order to make it easier for Syrian students to obtain Foreign Student Status. Currently, in order to be eligible for an F-1 Visa, foreign students must demonstrate, among other things, that they have no intent to immigrate to the United States. Given the current conflict, U.S. consular officers may assume Syrian visa applicants intend to immigrate to the United States. Applicants should be allowed to assert that they intend to return to Syria when it is safe to do so. Continuing their education will make it more feasible for them to return and contribute to rebuilding their country.

Second, to complete their visa application process, students are required to have face to face interviews at U.S. consulates. The U.S. Department of State should make accommodations to allow Syrian students expedited access to appointments at various locations to compensate for the severe logistical challenges refugee students face.

Finally, the Department of State should create an Exchange Visitor Program to provide another avenue for Syrian refugees to study at U.S. institutions of higher education.

To be sure, even when visa issues are resolved, enabling Syrian refugees to study in this country will require the cooperation of institutions of higher education as well as other stakeholders in the private sector. To that end, the administration should convene a working group of relevant parties in the government, higher education and the private sector to collaborate on addressing the practical hurdles—travel costs, application fees, missing transcripts and test scores, tuition and living expenses—Syrian students are likely to face. U.S. institutions of higher education must pledge to accept as many refugee students as possible and to waive application fees and document requirements. Corporations, foundations and other NGOs must work independently and in public/private partnerships to provide funding to offset travel and tuition expenses. Taken together, these actions would benefit Syrian refugees in the short term and foster the goodwill essential to building mutually beneficial partnerships among nations in the future.

It is imperative that we move quickly to offer safe refuge to 100,000 desperate Syrians, and to provide those who want to continue their education in the United States with the means to do so. If we fail to offer educational opportunities to qualified Syrian refugees we risk fostering the isolationism that helps to drive anti-Western sentiment. On the other hand, offering them safety and an education will build good will and cross-cultural understanding that enhances our own national security. Clearly, we must choose the latter.

Thank you for the opportunity to offer testimony on this critical matter.