F-1 Visas Under Scrutiny
IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE SEPTEMBER 11th ATTACKS on U.S. soil, numerous precautions have been taken to ensure the safety and security of the nation. Due to concern over the information that at least one of the 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. using a F-1 visa and two others changed their status from visitors to students, the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) published a final rule regarding student visa applications. This rule, entitled “Retention and Reporting of Information for F, J, and M Nonimmigrants; Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)”, was implemented on January 1, 2003.
Not only top universities such as Harvard and Yale attract international students, obtaining an education in the U.S. has worldwide appeal. The total number of international students attending colleges and universities in the U.S. reached a new record high of 582,996 students in 2002. Potential students may enter the U.S. under the F-1 academic student category or the M-1 vocational student category. The student must attend a school approved by the BCIS, as a full-time student. The student visa applicant must enroll in one of the following: an academic educational program, a language-training program, or a vocational program. Furthermore, the proposed student must maintain a residence abroad and clearly indicate that he/she has no intention of abandoning said residence. At the time of issuance, the student must be able to prove the existence of sufficient funds to last the duration of the course of study. The applicant is automatically rendered ineligible for a F-1 or M-1 visa if he/she does not meet any of the aforementioned requirements.
As a consequence of September 11th, student visa requirements were tightened with the implementation of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, SEVIS. SEVIS is an Internet-based system, which monitors foreigners entering the U.S. using F, J, or M visas. SEVIS maintains updated information on admission to schools, visa issuance, entry into the U.S., class registration, address changes, extensions in stay, and employment of these individuals. Thus, SEVIS enhances the ability of the BCIS to track foreigners pursuing an education in the U.S, in the interest of national security.
Along with the implementation of the SEVIS system, several important changes have been made to student visa procedures. Before the new rule was put into effect, foreigners were able to obtain a student visa and enter the U.S., but then, fail to report to a school. Schools often presumed that an anticipated student actually chose to attend another school, and thus, these schools would often not report a student’s failure to enroll. However, under the new set of rules, a school must inform the BCIS of whether a student has actually enrolled at the school, within thirty days of the school’s registration date.
In addition, changing one’s status from a tourist visa to a student visa has become a more strictly monitored process. Formerly, individuals with a B-1 visitor-for-business visa or a B-2 visitor-for-pleasure visa could commence their studies once they filed an application requesting a change to student status. These individuals were able to continue their studies until either the application was denied or until the course of study was completed. Under the new rules, an individual with a B visa cannot begin to attend any school until their application to change status to an F or M visa has been approved by the BCIS. Furthermore, a B visa-holder may only obtain a change of status if he/she makes such an intent clear at the time of entry into the U.S. Without a previously clear intent to change status, the alien can be put under expedited removal proceedings for misrepresenting him/herself to obtain a visa.
Few other less key, but equally notable, amendments were made to student visa procedures. When a student finishes their course of study, they are authorized to have a maximum 60-day grace period. However, if an F-1 student withdraws from school, they are authorized a 15-day grace period. If a student wishes to obtain a program extension, he/she must inform the BCIS before the end date specified on Form I-20. If the student fails to do so before this date, he/she is rendered out of status by the new rule. On the subject of reduced course loads, the new rule indicates that a reduced course load for an F-1 student is allowed only if it is approved beforehand by the school and includes at least half of the necessary hours for a full course of study. A reduced course load with less than half of the full hours is only acceptable in light of compelling medical reasons or a school’s verification that fewer courses are necessary. On Optional Practical Training (OPT), the new rule allows students to obtain one year of OPT after completing a bachelor’s, an additional one year after completing master’s and a third year after completing Ph.D. However OPT must be requested before the completion of the course of study. Another important change involves F-2 dependents: F-2 dependents may not enroll as full-time students in any post-secondary degree-granting course. Although F-2 dependents may enroll in elementary, secondary, vocational, or recreational studies, such individuals must change to F-1 status to enroll in college. A few changes have also been made to the Reinstatement of Status, Program Completion Date and On-Campus Employment regulations.
Although these regulations may at first appear tedious, and perhaps cumbersome, the new system will make a positive difference once these changes are fully instated. With the implementation of this new set of rules, the overall impact will be a heightened sense of national security, which has become increasingly beneficial in this post-September 11th era.
The author, Aparna Davé is an immigration attorney, with a J.D. from Boston University and a B.A. in Sociology. She has worked at the Immigration Clinic of Harvard Law School and was a member of Boston University School of Law’s Public Interest Law Journal.