Iranian students protest US visa slowdown

A petition calls for the US government to reverse an apparent decline in visas granted to Iranian scholars.

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Citizens of Iran face restrictions that make it difficult to enter the United States. Credit: AP/REX/Shutterstock

The rate at which the US government grants visas to prospective students from Iran has declined dramatically during President Donald Trump's time in office, according to US government data. And the visas that are granted take more time to arrive, according to a group of Iranian students that is petitioning the Trump administration to speed up the process.

“We decided to come to the U.S. to do science with hopes of having equal rights to access information and education, regardless of race, color, and gender, even if that is just for a little while,” the students wrote in their petition to the homeland security and state departments, which has garnered more than 800 signatures since it was posted online last month. “We have been feeling discriminated for a long time now.”

Data from the US State Department show that the number of visa approvals issued to Iranian students between March and June 2018 fell 64% compared to the equivalent period last year (see ‘Travel trouble?’).

The petition implies that Trump’s immigration policies are a reason for the delays. A policy that the president instituted in January 2017 barred citizens of Iran and six other Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. The administration later modified that travel ban after a series of legal challenges.

The current policy, which the US Supreme Court upheld in June, restricts citizens of seven countries, including Iran, from most travel to the United States. The ban does include exemptions for students, but it is unclear how broadly the US government is applying those provisions. State Department statistics show that 687 Iranians received student visas between March and June of 2017, but only 249 were granted visas during the same period this year. (The State Department began releasing monthly statistics on visa awards in March 2017.)

Slow drip

One of the petition’s organizers, who asked that his name be withheld because his own student visa is pending, says that he has spoken with more than 100 other Iranians whose student visas have been delayed three months or more after an initial interview. Before the Trump administration instituted its initial travel ban, he says, US embassies would often issue visas to Iranian students soon after their interviews.

Now, the organizer says, prospective students are more likely to report receiving letters from the State Department saying that their applications require further review. When these students ask US embassies for updates, they say, they receive form e-mails saying that the embassy cannot provide information on their status.

The number of new international students who enrolled at US universities dropped by 3% in 2016 — the first such decrease in 12 years, according to a report by the Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York City. Preliminary figures from 2017 show a 7% decrease.

Rajika Bhandari, a senior adviser at the institute, says that the Trump travel ban isn’t the only reason that international enrolment is declining. “There's been a tendency to fixate on some of the political and social developments, but really we need to look at broader factors,” she says. These include changing political and economic situations in students’ home countries.

Still, the recent decline worries her. “This could be a one-time blip,” Bhandari says. “But we don’t know yet if this is going to be something that turns into a long-term trend.”

Changing plans

The IIE report examined only the number of students who enrol at US institutions, not the number of students who are unable to obtain visas or defer enrolment. Iranian students whose travel to the United States is delayed can risk losing their research funding or their exemption from compulsory military service in Iran.

Abbas, an Iranian who hopes to begin a PhD programme in computer engineering this month at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, says that his ongoing wait for a US visa has greatly disrupted his life. Abbas — who asked Nature to withhold his last name because his visa application is pending — quit his job in May 2017, after applying for a visa, thinking that it would be approved quickly. He has struggled to get another job in Iran while he waits, because employers know he will leave as soon as he receives permission to enter the United States.

Now, after more than a year of waiting, Abbas says that he might try to attend university in Canada or Europe, where he thinks getting a visa will be easier. “I'm a simple student,” Abbas says. “I have not complicated circumstances or complicated background. I'm just a student and I want to study in the United States.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05948-7

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