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Students face US visa hurdle

Philadelphia, June 6 (Reuters): Yahya Jalil, a Pakistani graduate student, still has vivid memories of the exhilaration he felt when he arrived in the US to study electrical engineering at Stanford University 11 years ago.

“There was a real sense that this was a free country with lots of personal freedoms,” said the 29-year-old MBA candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

But few know better how life in the US has changed for Muslim immigrants since the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington prompted a broad clamp-down on US immigration procedures.

In March, Jalil says he boarded a flight for a job interview in Britain without realising he was supposed to register with US immigration authorities before leaving the country.

His oversight violated a new homeland security policy aimed at tracking men from countries with large Muslim populations when they enter and exit the US.

So when he tried to return to America at the end of spring break, US officials declared him an “inadmissible” alien. He found himself marooned in Pakistan, where officials said the policy he had broken was so new they had not formulated a waiver system for inadvertent violators.

Because of his expulsion, Jalil was unable to finish his course work and receive his MBA during Wharton’s graduation ceremony last month.

“I can’t help feel that it’s a very different US than the country I first landed in 11 years ago,” he said in an e-mail message from Pakistan. A one-time executive at General Electric and Credit Suisse First Boston, Jalil says he had a Pakistani-born friend who died in the September 11 attacks that killed 3,000 people.

But he is only one of countless foreign students, researchers and professors whose lives have been turned upside down by the US government’s “war on terrorism.”

Nowadays, foreign academics face lengthy visa application processing, sometimes exacerbated by security background checks. As a result, some faculty staff have been unavailable to teach classes and scientific research has been put on hold.

“Visas are harder to get, they take longer to get, and that is especially the case if you’re an Arab or a Muslim male,” said Victor Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at the Association of International Educators.

Experts say problems posed by tighter immigration rules have been compounded by the reluctance of the Bush administration and Congress to allocate extra resources.

“Resources needed to implement these intensified security procedures properly are not being provided,” said Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities.

The US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement estimates that there are about 1.2 million foreign students in the country. A firm figure will have to wait until its new database becomes fully operational this year.

Student visas came under special scrutiny after the government reported that student documents were mistakenly issued to two September 11 hijackers months after the attacks.

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