Dear Congress, Please Fix the Student-Visa System Too

Illegal immigration dominates the debate, but the hassles and hurdles faced by legal immigrants in the U.S. to study is important, too.

Stepping into the American Embassy in New Delhi can be a terrifying experience. As I stood in line in 2012 to get my student visa to attend Swarthmore College, waiting to be interviewed by one of several people seated behind thick glass panes, I watched the interviews of those before me, gradually growing more nervous as I realized that the course of my life depended on receiving a student visa.

Most interviews were short, insignificant affairs. Others began with polite pleasantries and quickly turned into aggressive questioning and fumbling answers if the applicants' documents did not present a convincing story. One woman was asked to produce a wedding photograph to prove she was married to the man that she wanted to join in America. Another was grilled about her multiple attempts to get student visas for programs at different institutions.

Though I saw applicants trying to gain access to better lives with more opportunities, the interviewers probably saw potential terrorists or drains on the social safety net trying to con the immigration system. Watching my countrymen denied access to America, I was convinced that I'd probably forgotten an essential document in my application and would be publicly yelled at just like the others.

Fortunately, my anxiety was unfounded, and my interview was short and smooth. But the cases of the women in front of me are representative of some of the problems that the new immigration bill seeks to address: The Senate bill contains new restrictions on work visas for family members, and measures to crack down on academic institutions that serve as a front for people to enter on student visas before moving to full-time employment.

While border security, illegal immigration from Latin America, and high-tech visas suck up most of the oxygen in the debate, they're not the only important issues on the table. Small changes in existing laws would make the immigration process far simpler for legal immigrants who will be the beneficiaries of the new W visas for agricultural workers, the revised H1B work visas, and F-1 student visas, if immigration reform becomes law. Simplifying the immigration process would both produce a fairer system and benefit the American economy and society.

The anxiety I felt at the embassy reappears whenever I have to deal with issues involving my status as a "legal non-resident alien." For all the freedom of opportunity my student visa gives me, it also imposes some excessive restrictions that affect my daily life.

There are stringent rules about the minimum number of courses I can take to maintain my visa status and the kind of job I can have if I want to work. Off-campus jobs unrelated to my course of study are not permitted. The rules are well-intentioned -- they seek to differentiate between those who are here to study and those who are here to work -- but they have some clumsy side effects.

For example, although Swarthmore has a paid program for students to tutor low-income high school students in a nearby town, I'm not allowed to participate without a work permit, which would cost me innumerable hours and $300 dollars to obtain. And refusing payment for a job that others get paid to do is illegal, to prevent extortion of workers.

Jobs such as dog walking, baby-sitting, and tutoring children are convenient for students but impossible for those of us on student visas. Unpaid internships are permitted but come with strict warnings about receiving any form of payment from your employers. The only money I can receive for my activities in America must come from my school and these activities had better be directly related to the college.

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Nehmat Kaur is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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