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Tighter U.S. Policy Leaves Foreign Students In Limbo
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 24, 2002; Page A17
© 2002 The Washington Post Company

By Ellen Nakashima and Alan Sipress

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- It took seven years, but Abdul Malik has completed his research for a doctorate in social psychology from the New School University in New York. The Indonesian student is now set to take the final step, by defending his thesis later this month. His adviser has agreed to fly in from Paris.

But Malik, an Indonesian citizen, fears he will not make the date. Though for the past decade he has consistently received permission to study in the United States, this year he was told to come back later when he applied for a visa on June 30. Almost three months later, he is still waiting. His Indonesian wife received her visa in June and left for New York without him.

Malik is among 10,000 men from 26 predominantly Muslim countries who are experiencing delays of two months or more as they await permission to study, work or vacation in the United States, the result of a quiet tightening of the visa review process in Washington prompted by the Sept. 11 attacks of a year ago.

There is the group of 52 Indonesian accountants whom Ernst & Young wanted to send to the United States to be trained in tracking money-laundering, a crucial element of the war on terrorism. They did not get their visas in time to go. There are the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus, a 12-member ensemble from Syria who will not be performing at an international music festival this month because they could not get their visas in time. Nor will 30 Indonesian musicians, masters of the gamelan, a traditional percussion instrument.

They are all men age 16 to 45 from a group of 26 countries with large Muslim populations, from Indonesia and Malaysia to Egypt and Turkey to Somalia and Eritrea. Washington has judged that all 26 countries present terrorism concerns. The U.S. government has not officially released the list.

It is not just ethnic Arab students who are affected. A number of Malaysian students of Chinese descent have not received visas in time to return to fall classes in the United States, some of them at Harvard, Yale and MIT. Malaysia, which traditionally sends thousands of students stateside, has suffered the largest backlog, well over 5,000, though in recent days some visa approvals have begun to come through. Indonesia has a backlog of 2,500 and Egypt about 800, according to U.S. and other government officials.

The bureaucratic limbo is the latest unintended consequence of the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Since late June, the number of agencies that must review each visa application has multiplied, greatly prolonging the process and swelling the backlog.

"It's a backlog that we have to juggle and keep track of," said a U.S. government official. "It's not a management problem. It's an image problem."

Before June, a U.S. embassy could issue a visa if the applicant qualified and the State Department did not object within 30 days. Today, embassy officials must have written approval from Washington for each applicant. Also affected are men who were born in, but are not citizens of, any of the 26 countries that are subject to the new scrutiny.

Even U.S. diplomats frustrated with the new policy agree that tougher border controls are warranted. Many of the Sept. 11 terrorists were in the United States on student visas. But the policy has complicated life for thousands of students and created diplomatic headaches for embassy staff.

Malik, who is staying with relatives in Jakarta, has repeatedly rebooked his flight to New York. After the fifth time, he gave up. He checks the embassy Web site every few days for visa announcements. His visits to the embassy have produced no visa and no explanation why.

"It is very, very frustrating," said Malik, 42, whose two daughters, born in the United States, are with his wife. "You want to plan, but you can't. I'm in limbo, and basically what they told me is to check. So you check every day hoping that today you will get it. It is like being trapped in time."

Officials at the New School "have the highest opinion" of Malik, according to one professor, noting that if the United States were seeking a student to promote the ideals of tolerance and international friendship, and who embodies the spirit of moderate Islam -- as do most of Indonesia's 220 million people -- he would be a model candidate.

"It's a personal tragedy and it's a political tragedy," said Richard J. Bernstein, dean of the faculty of political and social science. "This is a student we know extremely well. . . . If America is really serious about its policy of trying to fight terrorism and make friends among moderates, then this is just the type of student you want to invite in."

At Pennsylvania State University, about 100 international students are still awaiting visas for the fall semester that began Aug. 27. Although the university is allowing them to register late, many may have to withdraw until next semester or make alternative arrangements, said Barbara W. Pennypacker, assistant dean of the graduate school.

In the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, students have demonstrated at the U.S. Embassy, and some are opting to go to New Zealand or Australia. Some have written letters to local newspapers decrying the wait and what they call discrimination against them.

"For the last 40 years, the only really pressing issue with foreign students was whether they were going to go home when they finished," said Donald McCloud, executive director of the Malaysian American Commission on Educational Exchange in Kuala Lumpur. "Well, now there are real security issues. When you have a government that never has had to deal with that, you can't just turn around the next day and say, 'Okay, we have a system.' "

Exceptions can be made. For instance, if an embassy officer knows the applicant personally and there is some foreign policy interest involved, the restriction can be waived. Thus the Indonesian ambassador's son got a visa to visit his father in the United States. But these cases are rare.

U.S. government officials say they are sympathetic to the students' plights, and embassies from Jakarta to Djibouti have issued notices requesting that applicants apply extra early and expect waits of two months or longer.

A State Department official said the policy is not meant to target men because they are Muslim. He said that Muslims from many countries, such as those in Europe, are not subject to the new rules.

"It causes some inconvenience to some people. But if we are going to be serious about improving border security, some people are going to be inconvenienced," he said. He added that U.S. officials are trying to work out the kinks. "As it happens in the U.S. government when you have interagency cooperation, it takes time," he said. "We're trying to streamline and clear the logjam."

Though no deadline has been set for resolving the delays, the official predicted it would be a matter of weeks, not months.


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