INS requires students to have visas before starting classes
WASHINGTON -- Immigration officials tightened visa rules for foreign students Monday and proposed a 30-day limit to the time millions of tourists and business people may stay in the country.
Effective immediately, a foreigner wishing to study in America must obtain a student visa before beginning classes. Previously, a student could request a visa and begin coursework while his or her application was processed.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service believes requiring approval before students enroll will ensure they have received appropriate security checks before entering the country.
The INS also is proposing that people who want to switch from a tourist or business visa to a student visa return to their home country to apply. A person now can switch while in America. In return, the INS says it would speed up decisions on such requests, issuing them within 30 days.
Victor Johnson, associate executive director for public policy of the Association for International Educators, said that "if they follow through on their commitment in 30 days" the plan would succeed.
"But the INS doesn't do anything in 30 days," Johnson said.
The flurry of INS actions follows embarrassing revelations that the agency had notified a Florida flight school that visas were in order for two of its students -- six months after they had hijacked two jetliners and piloted them into the World Trade Center. That gaffe sparked a public rebuke from President Bush and renewed calls to overhaul the immigration service.
At the time of the attacks, about 600,000 foreign students were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities.
INS officials acknowledged they could not verify the whereabouts of many and promised changes to better track them.
The INS also is proposing to reduce from six months to 30 days the time a business traveler or tourist may stay in America. And the agency will make it more difficult to extend a stay.
Visitors would have to show unexpected or compelling reasons for an extension, such as the need for medical treatment or a delay in completing a business matter. The maximum length of a visa extension would be reduced from one year to six months.
Theresa Brown, manager of labor and immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said she is concerned that the pending changes will deter legitimate businesspeople and tourists from coming to this country.
"Any type of additional hurdle ... and people just aren't going to come," Brown said. "It probably will have a significant impact on the tourism and travel folks."
Ten-million people received tourist visas in 2000, according to an INS official. Seventy-five percent stayed less than a month.
As for business trips, 2.5-million people traveled to the United States on business visas and stayed an average of 13 days, the official said.
All 19 of the hijackers who participated in the Sept. 11 attacks were in the United States legally, mostly on tourist visas. But at least two had overstayed the limits of those visas.
The changes could have a huge impact on the many thousands of people who spend more than a month visiting family in America. Also affected would be young people and retirees from foreign lands who come to the United States each year for months of sightseeing.
The INS official said those people would have to return home after a month and reapply for a visa.
Travel industry officials said the proposal could hurt tourism, which still is recovering from the attacks.
"Any time we make it more difficult -- erect barriers or tighten barriers -- for people to come into our country, we give them incentive to go someplace else, and we've seen that," said Elise Wander of the Travel Industry Association of America.
Dexter Koehl, an association spokesman, said the travel industry favors having INS do more thorough checks before issuing visas and at points of entry rather than reducing the time visitors may stay.
"These new rules strike the appropriate balance between INS' mission to ensure that our nation's immigration laws are followed and stop illegal immigration and our desire to welcome legitimate visitors to the United States," INS Commissioner James Ziglar said.
Under another proposed rule, INS wants to require people who get final deportation orders to surrender themselves within 30 days. Those who don't will be denied any chance to appeal or seek asylum.
Currently, about 90 percent of nondetained individuals who receive final deportation orders fail to surrender, according to the INS. Those who do often appeal or seek asylum.
The proposed rules are open to public comment for 30 days.
The INS, long chastised as one of the most dysfunctional agencies in the federal government, is the subject of proposals that would break it into smaller components or abolish it altogether.
It drew the ire of Bush, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and lawmakers last month when it mailed out approval notices for changes in the visa status of two of the dead terrorists six months after the attacks.
-- The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.
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