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29th May 2024

US coalition urges Congress to take action to improve visa processing this year

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • A new campaign calls on the US Congress to take urgent action to expand visa processing capacity this year
  • That additional capacity is needed to better respond to growing student demand, and, in particular to ease processing bottlenecks and reduce rejection rates, especially in key growth markets in the Global South

The U.S. for Success Coalition launched a campaign today in a bid to improve visa processing for foreign students planning to study in the United States for the 2024/25 academic year. The campaign calls on international educators to reach out to their representatives in the US Congress, and in turn for Congress to intervene to ease backlogs for visa appointments, speed processing times, and reduce rejection rates.

The campaign points out that "a large number of F-1 student visa applicants are facing excessively long interview wait times, adjudication and processing delays, and a disproportionately high visa denial rate for those coming from Africa."

As we reported recently, US government data reveals that, "More than a third of prospective international students applying to study in the US [in 2023] were turned away. The F-1 visa refusal rate surged to 36% in 2023 for a total of 253,355 refusals, higher even than in 2022. What’s more, the rate of refusal for student visas was nearly twice that of refusal for other types of visas."

Those historically high refusal rates are particularly affecting students from the Global South, notably those from India and Africa.

And wait times for visa appointments are also trending much longer this year, with reported waits of up to 100 or 350 days, or more, depending on the student's country of origin. That severe bottleneck is now putting more students at risk of missing the start of the coming academic year.

A new report from Shorelight points out that, "For many students, the few, tense minutes of a visa interview can define or confine their future." It underscores as well that the process is especially challenging for African students: "The African continent…has by far the highest visa denial rate than any other world region…In 2022, the visa denial rates for central, eastern, western, and northern Africa ranged between 48% and 71%." According to Shorelight's analysis, that means that the US turned away just over 92,000 potential African students in the five years between 2018 and 2022. The report concludes that, "If the US is going to enrol an increasing diversity of students from all world regions, the issue of student visa denial rates will need to be addressed so that a visa never stands in the way of qualified students being able to study in the United States."

The view from NAFSA

"Part of the issue is the sheer number of applicants that are coming in and the number of [interview slots available," says Dr Fanta Aw, the CEO and Executive Director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. "One of the things I've come to appreciate in our conversations with the Department of State is that there are several constraints they face. Staffing, for example. There are only so many counsellors available and only so many hours in the week they are working. Those specific limits on capacity are compounded by the fact that we need to help modernise our government agencies. There is a mindset that we look at what happened last year, we may make some adjustments here and there but we're really not paying attention to what I call predictive analytics." Essentially, what Dr Aw is pointing to is the need to plan more proactively to increase visa processing capacity in countries where there is particularly high and/or quickly growing demand.

That those capacity issues are now reflecting in longer wait times for visa appointments and higher rejection rates is in turn a reflection of increasing application volumes, and some important shifts in where those applications are coming from (in particular that greater numbers are coming from the Global South and especially from India and Africa). "When you see exponential increase in demand and yet your process has not evolved to catch up and to be responsive to that demand, that is why we are now seeing this bottleneck [in visa processing] that is getting worse." She adds that the Department of State reports issuing more visas than ever before: "They are doing the best they can with the resources they have but relative to the demand it just doesn't move the needle."

The new campaign is clearly aimed at easing the process for students coming to the US in 2024/25, but it has a longer-term goal as well. "There are two goals of the campaign," says Dr Aw. "One is that it is incredibly important for everyone's benefit that there be more transparency in the process" – with the idea that students and institutions and stakeholders alike can understand better the variables that influence visa processing and the timing of the process. "More importantly, there needs to be a sense of urgency," she continues, "that wherever they can build capacity, they are able to do so. We need to prioritise that. This is an effort to turn the attention of Congress. We've got to ensure we are not turning away such vast numbers of students. It's not just that you lose those students for a year; it's more significant than that. Because the word spreads among students that [the F-1 application process] is not something you should even try, and that has repercussions for the next admissions cycle and so on."

"We are cautiously optimistic that [the campaign] can help some of the students to get here, but we also need to shed light on the urgency of this and get our Congress to get engaged." International educators in the US can use this link to access a ready-to-send letter in support of the campaign.

For additional background, please see:

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