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Education advocates push to lower high US visa denial rate for African students

FILE - Students walk past an entrance to Boston University College of Arts and Sciences in Boston, Nov. 29, 2018. A new report says student visa denial rates are higher for students from Africa than any other region.
FILE - Students walk past an entrance to Boston University College of Arts and Sciences in Boston, Nov. 29, 2018. A new report says student visa denial rates are higher for students from Africa than any other region.

Education and immigration advocates say African students face high denial rates when seeking visas to study in the United States, and they are pushing for changes.

Visa rejection rates are higher than elsewhere in regions of the Middle East, South America and Africa, with Africa experiencing the highest levels of disproportionate refusals, according to a Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration report released in July 2023.

“Whenever we see that sort of data for any country, let alone a region of the world, it gives us pause,” said Fanta Aw, executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Aw told VOA that NAFSA and other institutions met a few times with U.S. State Department officials in 2023 to ask questions and push for visa adjudication changes. She said an investigation still is needed to understand what is happening.

They are expected to meet again in the coming months.

“They’re very committed … and do not want to see inconsistencies in different parts. … We had conversations about staff training at the country level and consular affairs level, and we had assurances that these things are being constantly monitored,” she said.

Data collected through public records requests show that in 2022, half of the students from African countries who applied for a student visa were denied.

In 2023, the trend continued. Ethiopian students had a 78% denial rate, followed by Nigeria at 75%, Kenya at 74%, Congo at 69%, Ghana at 63%, Zimbabwe at 47%, and South Africa at 17%.

“What is the root cause here?” Aw said. “There needs to be assurance that [consular officers] on the ground are fully trained in the way they make determinations around this, that there is consistency in that. We need more visa appointment slots, because with the demand, if people are not even able to get a visa appointment, and when they get the rejection is this high, you can imagine the compounding effect of that.”

In European countries, for instance, one in 10 students was denied a visa during the same time frame.

The student visa, or F-1 visa, allows international students to enroll full time in U.S. government-certified institutions, and it is required for all international students.

“For the past few years, we’ve been tracking this,” Washington-based immigration lawyer Leon Fresco told VOA. “And we happened to notice there’s this weird African disparity here. … Is this happening by inertia? Is this happening because [U.S. officials] wanted it to happen? … We just want people to know there’s this disparity. … [And] start the process of fixing it.”

Word goes around

Advocates say a high rate of visa denials discourages students from applying to U.S. institutions.

“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. … International education is one of the most effective bridge-building, because these are future engineers, future business, future scientists, future artists, future politicians.”

Aw said countries like China and India are actively recruiting in parts of the African continent, and the United States is losing talent.

“Don’t get me wrong — if students want to go to China or India, there’s nothing wrong with that or any other place. But it shouldn't be because they couldn't get here,” she said.

Top priority

U.S. officials told VOA that international students are a top priority for the Department of State and that all visa applications are processed on their individual merits according to U.S. immigration law.

A State Department spokesperson told VOA that EducationUSA, a network supported by the U.S. government, is actively promoting U.S. higher education in Africa.

“Demand for student visas has skyrocketed across many regions in recent years. Our missions in Africa, South and Central Asia, and the Western Hemisphere all issued more student and exchange visitor visas in [fiscal year] 2023 than ever before,” a State Department official wrote in an email. “With sharp increases in demand, a commensurate increase in denials is expected.”

Aw recognizes that U.S. officials are working on visa adjudications. She praised the change announced in December by the State Department, which waived in-person interviews for student visa renewals.

Students can now apply for renewal without traveling to their home country, as long as their visa was issued within 48 months and they meet other criteria such as never having been refused a visa.

“We were pleased. … We see progress. … But even with that, it’s at the discretion of the consular affairs [official],” Aw said.

In 2023, more students from Africa got visas to study in the U.S. than ever before, the State Department says.

Compared to 2019 — before the pandemic — there is a 61% increase. Countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Eswatini, Ivory Coast and Madagascar saw the highest number of student visas issued in the past 20 years.

In a January letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, some congressional leaders urged greater attention toward equity in student exchange programs and visa adjudication. They emphasized its pivotal role in fortifying diplomacy and bolstering the U.S. economy.

“Because of these benefits, 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,” they wrote.

The next report on international student visa issuance and denials is expected in October.