May 14, 2007

NAFSA: Association of International Educators
1307 New York Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20005-4701

Thank you for inviting me to attend the 59th Annual Conference of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, which will take place May 27-June 1 2007, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Unfortunately, I will be unable to attend. I am sending one of my best representatives from the Visa Office, however, who will be able to speak on my behalf. You and your officers have worked frequently in the past with Abigail Rupp from our Field Liaison Division. She will be speaking at two separate sessions on the U.S. visa process, as well as participating in other sessions along with our colleagues from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and from the Department of Homeland Security. She will also represent us in a poster session on American Citizens Services issues. In addition to her expertise on student visa issues, Abby has been involved in the ongoing training of our consular officers, ensuring they are well versed in issues as wide ranging as visa security, counterterrorism awareness, and interviewing techniques. I know she will represent us well at your conference and field any question you may have.

As you know, the Department of State is keenly aware of the importance of international participation in the United States’ academic institutions. While the fundamental commitment to ensuring the security of U.S. borders must remain our first priority, our consular officers work every day to ensure that access to our country is not impeded for those whose presence we encourage and value. We have been actively recruiting foreign students to attend our universities and the trends are starting to turn around. In Fiscal Year 2006, the Department issued more than 590,000 visas for international academic and vocational students and exchange visitors to study or conduct research in the United States – an all-time record. This figure is 14 percent higher than last year and over 5 percent above the previous high in 2001. The numbers are even higher - more than double - in China, India, and the Middle East, but we have seen increases over the past several years from every region in the world.

As you are aware, the last five years have marked a period of unprecedented change in visa practices. We embarked on a comprehensive review of visa procedures and made dramatic, even revolutionary, changes. As the 9/11 Commission’s Staff report put it, we were “retooling consular work for counter terrorism, supporting the development of U.S. and international biometric border and travel document standards, and enhancing the security of the U.S. passport system.” We continue to make significant changes in the visa process – the list is now 11 pages long. It includes interviewing more people, collecting biometrics, and conducting more security checks, as well as increasing staffing and augmenting technology.

This issue is very important to me, and to all consular staff worldwide. I believe that the loss of even one qualified student to another nation is one too many. But, as we are all aware, there are a number of other factors that have influenced foreign travel to the United States beyond visa policies. The market for international students, especially in technical and scientific fields, has become more competitive globally. Other nations that are our direct competitors, including the UK and Australia, have become more aggressive in their recruitment and marketing efforts. Budget concerns at American universities now affect the level of support that institutions can provide to international students, which, together with increasing tuition, has raised costs for these students. And, yes, some parts of the world clearly view the United States as less welcoming than in the past.

Over the past few years, we have made enormous efforts to convince students that the United States remains a welcoming environment for their academic future. Officials, from Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice down, have taken every opportunity to speak to students, faculty, parents, and other audiences here and around the world about the breadth and richness of educational opportunities in the United States. I have been speaking just about everywhere - 170 cities here and abroad and counting - to explain our visa policies and welcome students to apply for student visas. I’ve spoken at places as varied and far flung as Beijing University in Beijing, China, and Stanford University; and to groups such as yours and the Association of International Education Administrators.

For the last four years, we have provided guidance to the 219 visa adjudicating posts requesting that they prioritize student applicants during the spring and summer season. They have responded in a number of ways, including setting aside specific “student only” interview times, and designating interview windows for student applicants only. These efforts have greatly reduced overall wait times for student visa interviews.

I would be remiss if I didn't also mention what we are doing to support American students interested in studying abroad. Through our online registration program, students or their schools can register even before they travel, making it easier for us to find them in an emergency. We continue to use our Consular Information Sheets and travel advisories to make sure citizens make informed choices about their trips. We have also conducted outreach to study abroad coordinators and others at academic institutions across the country.

The visa numbers are encouraging, and indicate that promising young scholars from around the world are hearing our message. But because we hope to see even greater improvement in the future, we will not stop there. Our message to international students is clear: we welcome you and we will help you get here.

I wish you the best at your conference.


Sincerely,

Maura Harty