By PAAIA Government Affairs Office
September 20, 2010, Washington, D.C. – In 2007, an Iranian student at Stanford University lost a sister-in-law in a fight with cancer. At the time, her brother, his wife, and their new-born child lived in Vancouver, Canada, a mere two hour flight from her California residence. However, due to the nature of visas granted to Iranian students, she could not risk a trip abroad to visit her family. “To me, making the decision to go out of the United States is basically equivalent to answering this question: am I able to handle my studies and research from outside America if I go out and my clearance doesn’t come on time?” Unfortunately for her and many other Iranian students the answer is no.
For many young Iranians, being granted the opportunity to attend college or university in the United States is a dream come true. However, the vast majority of Iranian students who are awarded the opportunity to study in the United States receive single-entry F-1 visas. What this means is that Iranian students who come to America to study have to renew their visa every time they leave the United States throughout the duration of their studies (i.e. holidays, academic conferences, family emergencies). Often times this is a lengthy process with no guarantee that their visas will be renewed.
So why is it that Iranians granted F-1 student visas seem to only receive single-entry visas while students from some other countries receive multiple entry visas? In general, visa restrictions are based on citizenship. Ultimately, every person is a citizen of a country and the passport they hold is a document of that country. The United States typically negotiates different entry and time stipulations with foreign governments based on their treatment of American citizens. According to the Department of State, the purpose for such reciprocity agreements is to obtain visa regimes consistent with national interests, laws and regulations, and to encourage international travel that benefit American citizens and the economy. In the case where the United States does not have diplomatic relations with a particular government, visa schedules are set on the foundation of reciprocity, and try to match as closely as possible, the visa regimes that those countries apply to American citizens.
Currently, Iranian nationals can obtain visas that are valid for three months and allow single-entry into the United States (likewise, a three-month visa applies to an American traveling to Iran). Chad and Afghanistan receive the same reciprocity. Furthermore, Iranian nationals are subject to security clearance procedures that can delay visa process times by up to six months. Iranian students are required to go through security clearance each time they travel outside the United States.
Over the past year, a number of student and civic organizations have brought attention to the issue of single entry visas for foreign students. The Student Advocates for Graduate Education (SAGE) is calling for legislative reforms that would allow single entry visa holders to receive travel waiver exceptions and be allowed to renew their visas from inside the U.S.. The United Government of Graduate Students of the University of Colorado has specifically requested that the State Department facilitate the re-entry conditions for Iranian students by revising the related regulations. Other organizations such as the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS) is urging that all student visas, regardless of any student’s country of origin and/or field of study, be multiple-entry and consistent with the duration of the student’s educational program. Meanwhile, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) is lobbying the Obama Administration and members of Congress to lift the policy of reciprocity for Iranian students.
As ongoing efforts to address the single-entry visa issue continue, Iranian students who need to travel outside the U.S. can seek guidance and assistance on the re-entry process from their university. According to John Pearson of the Bechtel International Center at Stanford University, among the points Iranian students should be aware of are the procedural and administrative delays associated with security background checks. “There is very little consistency in the process,” says Pearson. “It may take a student four weeks to receive security clearance or it could take four months.” The Bechtel International Center advises Iranian students to inform them of any travel plans at least five weeks before their departure and to have their visa documents endorsed for travel. Once outside the country, they urge students to immediately apply for their visa at consulate overseas and present their evidence of continuing education. The center will often follow up with appropriate consulate to ensure all the paper work has been properly submitted, and inquire about the student’s status.
PAAIA recognizes the value of attracting international students and scholars to the United States and the need for the government to pursue a corresponding strategy. International students constitute a reservoir of goodwill towards the U.S. as they often return to their home countries with a deeper appreciation of the American system of governance and values. It is of particular importance that students from the Middle East, including Iran, have a positive experience in America. PAAIA believes that it is our responsibility to support Iranian immigrants and non-immigrants alike, to safeguard their dignity and rights, and come to their assistance during times of hardship. We are therefore committed to working with others in determining the full impact of the visa policies in question and formulating an appropriate response that addresses both national security issues and some of the hardships that Iranian students face.
In furtherance of the interests of the Iranian students, PAAIA is in the process of reaching out to State Department officials and policy makers to inquire further about this matter and to ensure that any related deliberations will be informed by the experiences of the students as broadly as possible. Towards this end, we encourage you to contact us at email@example.com with accounts of how single-entry visas have affected your studies in the United States.