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Activists Want US to Re-think Student Visa Policies for Africans

FILE - Students walk past an entrance to Boston University College of Arts and Sciences in Boston, Nov. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
FILE - Students walk past an entrance to Boston University College of Arts and Sciences in Boston, Nov. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
Activists Want US to Re-think Student Visa Policies for Africans
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Activists say visa denial rates for African students seeking higher education in the United States are too high.

Fanta Aw is executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. NAFSA is a nonprofit organization that supports international student exchange.

Aw said data released in 2023 by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration shows visa rejections. She said the rejection rates for African students are higher than rates for students from the Middle East, South America and South Asia.

At the same time, however, the IEEE Open Doors Report says the number of students from sub-Saharan Africa studying in the U.S. is growing. The most recent Open Doors Report, which follows foreign students in the U.S., shows that the number of students from African countries south of the Sahara Desert increased by 18 percent.

Aw said the rejection numbers mean many more African students could be studying in the U.S. Fewer American students are going to college and not as many Chinese students are studying in the U.S. African students could help replace those groups, she said.

Last year, big percentages of students from several large African countries were denied study visas. In 2023, examples include Ethiopia at 78 percent, Nigeria at 75 percent and Kenya at 74 percent.

For those countries, the percentages are high. But the number of students going to the U.S. is also high. For example, Nigeria ranked seventh in the 2023 Open Doors Report with over 17,600 students studying in the U.S. The total is an increase of 22 percent over 2022.

Aw, representatives from the Presidents’ Alliance and Shorelight met with representatives from the State Department last summer. Shorelight is a business that connects international students with universities that offer the study programs they want.

The U.S. State Department said students should have the chance to secure a student visa no matter where they are from. The groups decided to continue discussing their concerns in the future.

Aw said activists want to discover the reason for the disproportionate number of denials. Only about one in 10 European students were denied visas in 2023, for example.

One concern, Aw said, is to make certain those who review visa applications “are fully trained in the way they make determinations (for student visas).” She wants to be sure African students are considered in the same way as students from other parts of the world.

In addition, she asked for more student visa appointments. Aw said many students who want to come to the U.S. get discouraged and turn to education in other countries.

“Word goes around, ‘Don’t bother, because you’re never going to make it,’” Aw said. “And that is not the message any of us want to see.”

“So don’t get me wrong — (if) students want to go to China or India, there’s nothing wrong with that - or other places. But it shouldn't be because they couldn't get here (the U.S.).”

She noted that education programs “build bridges” as students go on to international jobs and make connections with the U.S. Aw also noted that, as education systems improve around the world, students have more choices.

U.S. officials told VOA that international students are very important, or a top priority. They added that all visa applications are processed on their individual merits and under U.S. immigration law.

Leon Fresco is an immigration lawyer in Washington, D.C. Fresco said he wants to know more “about this weird African disparity.” He said he wants more people to know about it to, in his words, “start the process of fixing it.”

Both Fresco and Aw suggested that U.S. government officials are not up to date on the quality of students aiming to study in the U.S.

“In the case of Africa and India,” Aw said, “…most of these students are graduate students who are coming for (science) and (business) fields, areas that are very much needed and where innovation happens.”

“We want to make sure there’s an understanding that Africa and African countries are changing rapidly and that we’re not keeping, you know, preconceived notions or outdated notions about what’s happening in Africa.”

In an email to VOA, a representative from the State Department said its Education USA program aims to help Africans attend U.S. colleges. But, as more students are interested in studying in the U.S., the percentage of visa denials will increase. It also noted that more Africans received student visas in 2023 than ever before.

Countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Eswatini, Ivory Coast and Madagascar have had more student visas approved than at any time in the past 20 years. Compared to 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a 61 percent increase in approved student visas among those countries.

Aw said her group sees progress. She gave the example that students no longer need to have in-person interviews in order to renew their visas. And students can also apply for visa renewal without traveling to their home country.

A group of American lawmakers wrote a letter earlier this year to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. They said that educational exchange is an important part of international diplomacy.

“It is critical that foreign students from Africa are treated similarly to foreign students from other parts of the world. There should be no reason that the State Department data should reflect such disparities among similarly situated countries,” the letter read.

And, as Aw noted, the results that come from students having a good experience in the U.S. last for years.

She said: “If we have a generation of students who are denied access to an education here in the U.S., that’s a generation that…will have missed out in building friendships, bridges, businesses and so forth.”

I’m Dan Friedell. And I’m Jill Robbins.

Aline Barros wrote this story for VOA. Dan Friedell adapted it for Learning English.

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Words in This Story

disproportionate –adj. affecting one more than another

determination –n. an official finding on whether to do something or not based on available information

appointment –n. a time to meet with an official to carry out part of an official process

merits –n. (pl.) qualities that play a part in deciding if a person should be able to have a position, membership in a group or attendance at a school

weird –adj. strange

disparity –n. a condition of being unequal or of lacking something that others have

innovation –n. the creation of something that people think is new

notion –n. an idea

apply –v. to request for a document, such as a visa, in writing from an official agency

disparity –n. an imbalance or unequal situation

situated –adj. in a place or position

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