The proposed International Student and Scholar Access Act of 2004 (S. 2715) was introduced by Republican Norm Coleman of Minnesota in the Senate to enable international students to obtain student visas more efficiently without compromising the nation’s security. According to the text of the bill, the legislation is a response to recent findings by Congress which expressed the need to implement effective screening to prevent terrorists from entering on student visas without delaying the process for legitimate students and discouraging them from studying in the U.S. Congress stressed the importance of furthering open scientific exchange as well as foreign policy, educational, and economic interests in recruiting international students. Congress noted that delays in issuing Visa Mantis security clearances and student visas as well as concerns over the anticipated international student monitoring system called “SEVIS” have deterred foreign students from studying in the U.S.
The proposed legislation would require the President, after consulting with various educational institutions, to submit a strategic plan for improving international student access to U.S. schools. It would include a marketing plan, using the Internet and other media resources, to recruit and enable students to study in the U.S. It would also coordinate efforts among the Departments of State, Commerce, Education, and Homeland Security to welcome and assist international student and exchange visitors. One provision calls for the State Department’s educational advising centers abroad to prescreen visa applicants. Moreover, the bill reduces the SEVIS fee for short-term study and seeks to improve fee collection.
The bill also calls for a “timely, transparent, and predictable visa process.” It directs the Secretary of State to issue guidance to consular officers so that they may grant discretionary waivers of personal appearance for legitimate travelers while questioning others more rigorously as appropriate. Consulates would also have discretion to extend Visa Mantis security clearances for the period of status or program so that visitors who leave temporarily would not have to endure the process repeatedly. A presumption of visa approval would apply to frequent visitors who have previously obtained visas for the same purpose and who have no status violations. More realistic standards would be set for visa evaluations.
The bill requires the President to set specific timeliness guidelines for inter-agency review of visa applications requiring security clearances. It also instructs the President, with the aid of the Secretaries of State, Education, Commerce, and Homeland Security, to submit an annual report to Congress on the implementation of the national strategy. The report would assess measures taken to promote international student access to U.S. schools and those taken to reform visa processing. It would detail the numbers of student and exchange visitors who apply for and are granted visas and the average processing time for these visas.
Further, the bill instructs the Director of the FBI to ensure that the Bureau’s databases and systems used in the National Name Check Program are interoperable with those at the Department of State. The FBI would have to have automated files and a common database between its field offices and headquarters in addition to full connectivity to the Consular Consolidated Database through the Open Source Information System.
Finally, the proposed legislation would require the Secretary of State to report on the feasibility of expediting visa processing for students and exchange visitors by prescreening applicants abroad and on the ability of collecting biometric data without requiring a visa applicant to appear at the Embassy. The Secretary would also report on the guidance and training of consular officers and whether greater efficiency had been achieved.