UC Berkeley students seeking visas encounter pandemic-related difficulties

Photo of people walking on UC Berkeley campus
William Webster/Staff
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, several campus international students are facing difficulties obtaining visas. Because most embassies are not prioritizing students, international students who have either had to leave the United States or who have never been able to come to campus are limited by the backlog.

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As campus plans to return to in-person instruction for the fall 2021 semester, international students seeking visas to study in the United States are facing difficulties related to COVID-19 measures that may prevent them from getting to campus.

The Berkeley International Office, or BIO, estimates that between 2,000 and 2,500 international students will have limited access to services because most embassies are prioritizing emergency situations and groups other than students.

“While embassies have allowed students to set up appointments for interviews, they have subsequently cancelled those visas appointments and students have to (reschedule) those appointments,” said BIO director Ivor Emmanuel in an email. “That is (exacerbating) the situation by creating greater backlogs of appointments.”

Emmanuel added that students in countries enforcing COVID-19 travel bans, including China, Brazil, Iran and South Africa, are particularly limited by these measures, as exceptions allowing students to travel are not permitted.

Elif Sensurucu, president of International Students Association at Berkeley, or ISAB, noted that low-income international students also face greater challenges because of the financial strain of obtaining student and work-related visas.

“Students in this situation feel unsupported and as if they don’t belong,” Sensurucu said in an email. “International students provide much of the different perspectives and diversity that universities rely on.”

BIO plans to continue distributing visa documents to international students seeking to come to campus regardless of how likely it is for students to receive appointments.

Emmanuel noted, however, that it is unlikely these students will be able to get interviews in time to come to campus by the start of the fall semester, which would require campus to accommodate more remote students than expected and could force students to withdraw until they can travel.

“If things do improve unexpectedly at least they will be prepared with having the necessary paperwork to apply for their visas,” Emmanuel said in the email. “We are also prepared to reissue those visa documents with new reporting dates if they are able to arrive after the start of the semester.”

Students who had to leave the United States due to the pandemic and are reapplying for visas, as well as new students who haven’t been to campus, are limited by the backlog, according to ASUC Senator Rex Zhang.

Zhang noted that many international students have unanswered questions about their visa status, academics, housing and vaccinations, which he hopes will be addressed at a town hall held by his office April 22.

“Students feel anxious and uncertain about their visa status and whether they could continue their college education smoothly,” Zhang said in an email. “This might be a more challenged issue for coming freshman and sophomore students who haven’t got their visa and gone to Berkeley yet.”

Contact Emma Taila at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @emmataila/