Is racial profiling behind African student visa denials?

Dr Miriam Feldblum, the executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, has called for investigations by the United States Congress and other government bodies of the systemic F-1 Visa denials to international students.

She was speaking during a webinar held to discuss the findings of a report published by the Presidents’ Alliance and Shorelight – two agencies promoting policies in support of international students – which found that more than half of African students applying for study to the United States are denied visas.

Most of the speakers at the webinar questioned whether the treatment of African applications amounted to racial profiling.

The F-1 Visa category allows foreign students to enter and study full-time in institutions that are certified by the US government and it is mandatory for all immigrant international students.

The report, The Interview of a Lifetime: An Analysis of Visa Denials and International Student Flows to the US, found that between 2018 and 2022, an estimated 92,051 potentially qualified African students applying to study in universities and colleges in the US were denied visas, as reported by University World News on Thursday.

“These disparate outcomes call for sustained, serious investigation,” said Feldblum.

Shelley Landry, a senior director of government affairs at Shorelight and a co-author of the report stressed that most of the student visa denials are heavily concentrated in some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, presumably in Western and Central Africa. In contrast students from Australia, China, Brazil, South Africa and some European countries were spared the same level of denials.

Overall, US consular visa officials rejected 31%, or one in three visas, as of last year, but the visa denial rate for applications from Western, Central and Eastern Africa was 57%, 64% and 43% respectively.

The visa refusal datasets that informed the report were obtained from the US government through a Freedom of Information Act request for the period between 2015 and 2022. Other data were sourced from Open Doors, a project of the International Institute of Education, and the student data banks from the United Nations and the World Bank, according to the report.

Since 2019 some of the highest student visa denials clustered in Sub-Saharan Africa – with the exception of Southern Africa – and most of the key speakers at the webinar wondered whether the US consular officers were racially profiling African students from the region.

Raising the issue, Munya Chiura, the head of Africa business development at MPOWER Financing, a public benefit firm that offers educational loans to international students in the US, said there is probably no other major reason to explain the disproportionate higher rates of visa denials for African students in comparison to other students from other parts of the world.

Refusal rates are 30% for South Americans and 25% for Australians and Pacific Islanders.

Chiura said that at MPOWER they have seen cases where African students have been denied visas even when they are qualified and have funding for their education and up-keep while in the US.

He said that of 3,000 students from Sub-Saharan Africa admitted for graduate studies to a top US university last year, only about 60% were granted a student visa, in spite of having been admitted and having secured the required funding.

Professor Paul Zeleza, the associate provost at Case Western Reserve University in the US, who has wide experience in higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa, concurred that he has witnessed cases of talented African students being denied a visa but eventually getting admission into universities in Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Malaysia and the United Kingdom.

Landry said most African students had their visa applications rejected because most of them come from poor backgrounds and consular officials who conduct visa interviews appear to favour students from affluent families and those that are well travelled.

She explained that, in some instances, students from Sub-Saharan Africa are likely to receive a student visa to study in the US when applying in a non-African foreign destination.

According to Dr Lydiah Kemunto Bosire, the founder of 8B Education Investments, a fintech company that offers loans and other support to students, African students encounter barriers related to the interview process, especially when required to travel to a second country. For instance, outside South Africa, interview slots in Sub-Saharan Africa are mainly in Accra (Ghana), Lagos (Nigeria) and Nairobi (Kenya).

“In case a student fails in the first attempt to get a visa there is almost no second chance, or an interview review and application fees and travel expenses are usually high,” said Bosire.

To increase African student chances, Bosire urged universities in the US to provide letters of support and other testimonials to be presented to consular officers during the interviews.

The Presidents’ Alliance is a coalition of more than 450 university presidents and vice-chancellors who are interested in increasing student diversity in their campuses.

Dr Rajika Bhandari, a senior adviser to the Presidents’ Alliance on international student research and global talent issues, who was lead co-author of the report, said consular officers should stop speculating about international students’ intentions in the future but instead evaluate their intent at the moment of the interview, as many students from the Global South are being denied visas because of the requirement of unnecessary information.

Bandari and other speakers at the webinar criticised visa denials based on students’ inability to provide proof of multiple years of funding. They said many students and their families pay for their education as they go on with their studies.

“Proof of funding for the entire duration of the programme is not reasonable and should not be a requirement for a visa approval,” said Jill Welch, a senior policy adviser at Presidents’ Alliance, and another co-author of the report.

Welch urged universities in the US to campaign against visa refusal based on competency in English language, especially among foreign student applicants who want to attend community colleges in the US.

“Consular officers should leave questions of academic choice and qualifications to be decided between the student and the institution,” said Welch.

Citing implications for universities in the US in their struggle to recruit more foreign students, the speakers said high visa denials are likely to discourage African students from applying to the US institutions, despite the rising demand for higher education in the continent.

Zeleza said this comes at a time when enrolments in the US are declining and the survival of some institutions might depend on a large number of international students in future.

Highlighting some of the demographic trends, Zeleza said that by 2030 young Africans will form about 42% of the world’s youth population, and by 2050 are expected to number over 1.1 billion. He also noted that other predictions indicate that by 2050, Sub-Saharan Africa’s tertiary youth population could reach 90 million with half of that being in Nigeria.

Feldblum and Zeleza pointed out that if visa refusals persist, there is danger of the US failing to attract global talent not just in Sub-Saharan Africa but in the rest of the Global South.

Zeleza, who is a former vice-chancellor at the Nairobi-based United States International University Africa, or USIU, said competition for global talent is already underway, and whereas visa refusals are high in the US, Canada and the UK, other destinations, such as China and France are vying and aggressively recruiting students from the Global South.

Taking into account that this is the first report in the US to document evidence of high visa refusals, especially in some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Presidents’ Alliance and Shorelight promised to undertake further analysis of data and report how student visa denials are likely to impact on talent competition, diplomatic and economic agenda.