US student visas go mostly to the rich and successful
Arizona Daily Star
March 12, 2008


Applicants must have good grades and high incomes and even then, securing one proves far from easy
By Brady McCombs
Tucson, Arizona | Published:
Patricia Azuara's trip to the U.S. Consulate in Nogales on Oct. 1, 2004, should be fairly painless, considering she has spent the previous six years dealing with issues related to her student and worker visas.
The University of Arizona doctoral candidate, 34, knows about all the fees, bank statements and immigration forms she needs. Since arriving in 1998, she has mastered English, adapted to life in the United States and navigated her way through two previous visas.
Her appointment at the consulate is to finalize the transition from the H1B worker visa she has been using to work in public education to an F1 student visa that will allow her to begin a Ph.D. program in the department of language, reading and culture in the UA's College of Education.
She has the letter she needs from the university, a completed immigration form and a bank statement from her father proving she can pay for tuition and expenses not covered by her scholarships.
At her interview, though, a consular officer tells her she has failed to pay a $100 fee required by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement program to track students. The program was established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"I was like, nobody told me I had to pay that fee," says Azuara, of Mexico City.
Since the U.S. State Department requires the fee be paid via the Internet, Azuara drives around Nogales to find an Internet cafe so she can pay the fee and complete her paperwork.
The consular officer approves her petition, but the mistake reminds her the visa process is never simple, quick or cheap. "Even if you have all the documents required and you follow all the steps, they can reject your visa application, just like that with no explanation," she says.
Steep requirements
Applicants for student visas must be excellent students with a command of English and enough money $32,000 at the UA to prove they, or their families, can pay out-of-state tuition and living expenses for at least one year.
Still, that's no guarantee of approval. In fiscal year 2007, the U.S. State Department rejected nearly a third of the 432,000 student visa applications submitted worldwide.
Azuara is one of 2,300 international students at the UA. Nationwide, she is one of 14,922 from Mexico and 978,906 in the United States, according to figures from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that also include students on two other types of less-common visas.
Becoming an international student isn't possible for many families around the world.
"It's a huge investment for a family to send their children here," says Joanne Lagasse-Long, director of the International student programs and services at the UA.
If a family can afford to send a child to study in the United States, it usually means they are doing well socially and economically in their home country and are unlikely to consider entering illegally, she says.
Once here, students are kept under a close watch by Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Web-based Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which monitors students and their dependents throughout their approved stay in the U.S. education system.
If students don't have a full course load or are working in an unauthorized job, universities are required to report them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Yearly trips to the U.S.
Educated in private, bilingual schools in Mexico City, Azuara and her family entered the United States yearly with tourist visas for shopping trips to San Antonio and visits to San Diego or Disneyland.
She had earned a bachelor's degree in special education from a private university in Mexico City and was working as a third-grade teacher in a private school when a former professor urged her to apply for a scholarship to pursue a master's degree at the UA.
Even if applicants can get the money together and they are able to gain admission to the university, the final decision rests with the immigration officer. And "what happens at this appointment can vary greatly," Lagasse-Long says.
Azuara still remembers her interview in 1998 at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City:
"You wait in line forever. It's like a prison, actually, because they put you like in lines, rows, and then they ask you, like, 'Stand up all this row, sit in the next one.' And you cannot take food and you are there for like the whole day. Finally, you get to somebody that will interview you.
"It wasn't hard for me because they just saw my papers and saw that I have enough money to come here and they gave me the visa, but you see the people interviewing to the next of you and it's kind of scary. They really look at the way you are dressed, the color of your skin."
Once at school, students must maintain full-time student status and show progress toward completion of the program to retain their visas, Lagasse-Long says. They can work part time on on-campus or at approved off-campus jobs.
Azuara teaches a class at the UA and works as the coordinator for a program that hosts foreign students who come for a month to learn about U.S. history and culture. She earns about $900 a month after taxes, which she says makes it difficult to pay living expenses.
She hopes to earn her Ph.D. in May 2009 and take advantage of a one-year extension granted to students to work in their fields of study. Once her studies and practical training are complete, she'll have to find a company to sponsor her for an H1B visa or return to Mexico, because a student visa offers no path to legal residency.
Despite being here for nearly a decade, Azuara says it remains crystal-clear that her status is temporary.
"You never feel completely here. You are always like a guest," she says. "It is very unfortunate because I go home and I don't feel home, either."
● Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or