By Ada Meloy
The earthquake in Haiti is one of the most tragic and devastating disasters the western hemisphere has suffered in recent history. In a country where a small percentage of the population engages in higher education, it is critical that Haiti rebuild its higher education system to develop and foster stability in its social and economic infrastructures.
Although the motivation for this article arises from the tragedy in Haiti, it is important to recognize that such devastation and circumstance could strike anywhere. Whether it be a natural disaster or manifested political or social unrest, the international higher education community should come together to support recovery efforts.
Many colleges and universities in the United States are considering initiating programs to mitigate the earthquake’s damage to higher education in Haiti. However, such an international effort must confront substantial transnational barriers. One of the most sizable impediments to foreign students can be the securing of a visa to gain entry into the United States.
There are three primary classifications of nonimmigrant “student” visas.1 Institutions seeking to enroll Haitian students should ensure that students apply for the correct visa. Two main factors to consider in this evaluation are the program itself and the student’s source of financial support. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS ) sets forth regulations and requirements for nonimmigrant student entry into the United States.
F-1 visas are for academic study. Applicants must demonstrate that they possess adequate financial resources that are either personal or from outside funding sources. Some institutions may have special scholarship funds available to support Haitian students. A minimum of one year’s support must be demonstrated to show that the student will neither become a public charge nor engage in illegal employment. Although students whose primary source of funding is themselves or their family typically apply for F-1 visas, such funding is unlikely to be available for Haitian students, given the devastation. F-1 schools include four-year colleges and universities, community colleges, conservatories, seminaries, and language-training programs; the institution also must be a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)–certified school. SEVP certification requires the program to be part of a bona fide school or institution, the school or institution must possess the necessary resources to implement and facilitate the course programs, and the school or institution must, in fact, teach those courses. In addition, certain petition and site-visit fees are required. The majority of higher education institutions are already SEVPcertified.
J-1 visitor exchange visas are for promoting educational and cultural exchange to further mutual understandings between people of the United States and other nations. The J-1 visa requires that the student be sponsored, at least substantially, from the home or host government, an organization, or an institution. J-1 visas are available for both degree and non-degree–granting programs, but the program must be approved by the Department of State (DOS).
M-1 visas are limited to vocational or other nonacademic programs. Like F-1 visa applicants, M-1 applicants must furnish proof of sufficient financial resources to cover tuition and living expenses; however, M-1 students may not change their educational objective. In other words, M-1 students may be limited to vocational and nonacademic courses of study. M-1 schools include community or junior colleges that provide vocational or technical training, postsecondary vocational or business schools, and vocational or other nonacademic high schools; the institution also must be an SEVP-certified school.
Another area of concern is the language barrier that a student may face. Host institutions should be aware that prospective Haitian students may not be sufficiently proficient in English to participate in regular academic classes. If the admitting school stipulates that English is required for the intended course of study, students who lack English proficiency will likely be ineligible for a student visa. To satisfy visa restrictions, colleges and universities must appropriately tailor program requirements and objectives to the targeted population.
Proceed with Caution
The student visa application process also entails certain fees, including an application fee of $131. According to the DOS, a student may be exempt from this fee if the program is sponsored by the U.S. government. There is an additional mandatory fee for students who want to enroll in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SE VIS), which functions under the DHS and the DOS to monitor institutions and exchange programs under the SE VP. These fees vary depending on an individual’s visa classification and program type.
An additional hurdle to any immediate entry of Haitian students is the limited availability of visas in Haiti. The Nonimmigrant Visa services at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti were closed indefinitely after the earthquake, when the immediate needs of U.S. citizens and immigrant visa applicants were a priority.2 However, colleges and universities may expedite the process by filing student information into SEVIS to generate the requisite forms for prospective students to proceed with the student visa process. The SEVIS-generated forms demonstrate proof of admission and program sponsorship, and must be presented upon entry to the United States. Students also may attempt to expedite their visa application, and although these petitions are not always successful, special exigent circumstances are considered in favor of applicants on case-by-case bases.
Many financial, identity, and educational documents required for a visa application were likely destroyed in the earthquake. Though the DHS and the DOS have not specifically addressed this obstacle, they have stated that for those Haitian nationals who have already been approved for visas or for those who are stranded without documents, they will make every effort to verify status by alternative means. Ultimately, any preliminary planning and steps taken now can aid the goal of implementing programs for summer or for the 2010–11 academic year.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, there has been recognition of a broader social responsibility and obligation to aid the international community. Education is critical to Haiti’s recovery and advancement and, as a community, it is imperative that higher education institutions make every effort to organize recovery efforts to aid Haitian students.
Ada Meloy is general counsel to the American Council on Education. She extends thanks to Miyun Choe, a second-year law student at the University of California Davis School of Law serving an internship at ACE, for her contribution to this article.