Most of the newly admitted international students at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service were unable to attend classes this fall after being denied visas, according to Skip Rutherford, the school's dean.
Eleven students applied for visas, and nine were rejected, Rutherford said.
Around the nation, other schools have also seen rejections since President Donald Trump implemented tighter visa scrutiny, according to officials with an organization originally known as the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers. (Today, the Washington-based nonprofit refers to itself as NAFSA: Association of International Educators.)
"There is a clear sense in the international education community that agencies' implementation of the 2017 presidential memorandum on 'Heightened Screening and Vetting of Applications for Visas and Other Immigration Benefits' has led to many more visa denials, intrusive searches of electronic devices and social media accounts at ports of entry, and denials of admission to the U.S. than seen in prior administrations," said Rachel Banks, the group's director of public policy.
At the Little Rock school, named after the nation's 42nd president, students from Ecuador, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria were prevented from entering the country this year.
Three of the students had obtained privately funded scholarships that would have covered their expenses; that includes two who had received Rotary Global Grant Scholarships, Rutherford said.
School officials don't know why so many applicants were rejected by federal officials.
"I'm not blaming. I'm not judging. I'm just raising the concern flag here," Rutherford said. "We've never had this happen before. ... I hope it's not the new normal."
Charles Kuck, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said it's getting harder and harder for international students to obtain visas.
"They're just reinterpreting the rules in a much stricter fashion to find ways to deny the kids entry to the United States," he said.
A State Department spokesman said the department faithfully follows the rules.
"International students are a priority for the Department of State. We recognize the important contributions these students make to our college and university campuses, the positive impact they have on U.S. communities, and the rich benefits of academic cooperation in increasing cultural understanding and furthering research and knowledge. We are committed to supporting the U.S. academic community and U.S. economy through efficient visa processing, while safeguarding border security," he said.
"While we cannot discuss individual visa cases since visa records are confidential under U.S. law, we underscore that U.S. law does not authorize the refusal of visas based on political statements, views, or affiliations if those statements, views, or affiliations would be lawful in the United States. Visas may be denied only on grounds set out in U.S. law," he said.
Applicants have few rights and few options when they're rejected, Kuck said.
"There is zero transparency. There is zero chance of getting it overturned," he said.
"This is actually a coordinated program designed to limit the number of student visas and student visa holders in the United States, and it will have extraordinarily negative long-term repercussions," he said.
Visa problems aren't limited to state schools; they pop up in the Ivy League as well.
In July, Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow sent a letter to Trump administration officials expressing "deep concern" over the "increasingly unpredictable and uncertain" visa and immigration process.
"Students report difficulties getting initial visas -- from delays to denials. Scholars have experienced postponements and disruptions for what have previously been routine immigration processes such as family visas, renewals of status, or clearance for international travel," he wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan.
Even those who receive student visas aren't guaranteed entry.
In August, a member of Harvard's incoming Class of 2023 was deported to Lebanon, hours after arriving at Boston's Logan International Airport.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer turned Ismail B. Ajjawi away after scrutinizing his telephone and computer. The Palestinian told The Harvard Crimson that the customs official had disapproved of comments by people in Ajjawi's social media network.
After the case gained international attention, federal officials relented; Ajjawi returned to the United States just in time to start the fall semester.
Ajjawi's attorney, Albert Mokhiber, said Harvard and its allies had enough clout to get the decision overturned.
"We were successful on this one, but there's going to be many, many more. They're not going to have a president of Harvard or their own university or former ambassador or even a lawyer perhaps available to them," he told the Crimson. "We have to look to the underlying issue, which is much greater."
The would-be Clinton School students had already received acceptance letters when they applied for their visas, according to Alex Thomas, the school's director of enrollment and alumni services. They filled out lengthy paperwork, made sure that the $160 application fee had been paid, and traveled to the nearest U.S. consulate to complete an interview.
In some cases, it was an hourslong journey.
For most of them, the exercise ended in rejection.
"For a lot of students, it was very heartbreaking," Thomas said.
The Arkansas visa denials have been a disappointment not only for the would-be students but also for many Rotarians who wanted to see them succeed.
"From an intellectual level, these are qualified candidates who have the right heart and the right ambitions to do well in their studies and to use their education to help other people," said Dr. Bob Warner, a Rotary International district international service chairman from Jonesboro.
The rejections are painful, he said.
"From an emotional point of view, you get to know these students and you're working with them over these months ... and you become friends with them," he said. "It really hurts to see them so disappointed."
In order to attend school in the United States, international visitors traditionally obtained an F-1 visa -- the category designated "Student (academic or language training program)."
The number of F-1 visas jumped sharply over a decade's time, climbing from 273,870 in fiscal 2006 to 644,233 in fiscal 2015, according to reports by the State Department's visa office.
But the number fell sharply in fiscal 2016, the last full year of the Obama administration, to 471,728. Since then, the decline has continued.
There were 362,929 F-1 student visas issued in fiscal 2018, the last year for which figures were available, State Department data shows.
Despite the sharp decline in the number of F-1 visas issued, the overall number of international students in the U.S. has only decreased slightly, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security's Student and Exchange Visitor Information System.
From 1,208,039 in March 2017, the number of students slipped slightly to 1,201,829 in March 2018. This year, the total number of international students in March was 1,169,424 , a drop of 2.7%.
These figures include not only F-1 visa recipients (the academic or language training students), but also M-1 visa holders (for "vocational and other nonacademic students").
Ranko Shiraki Oliver, an immigration law expert at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's William H. Bowen School of Law, said it's "unquestionably" more difficult, overall, to obtain a visa to the United States.
"There is a general trend toward restricting immigration to the United States," she added.
Increasingly tough U.S. visa policies are drawing criticism overseas.
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry accused the U.S. of weaponizing its visa issuance practices, The Associated Press reported.
The spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said the U.S. "has frequently rejected and delayed visa applications, revoked long-term visas of Chinese applicants and investigated and harassed the Chinese scholars, students, businesspeople, and scientific and technical personnel."
The stricter policies have been noticed in other countries as well.
The Times of India reported this month that Canada has surpassed the United States as the top destination for Indian students.
In 2015, 74,831 Indians received F-1 visas so they could study in the United States; 31,940 obtained Canadian study permits.
By last year, the number of F-1 visas for Indians had fallen to 42,694. The number of Canadian study permits was 107,290.
Information for this article was contributed by Rachel O'Neal of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 10/28/2019