A recent survey revealed a 9% decrease in students from the Middle East coming to the United States in the 2003-04 academic year and a 10% decline for 2002-03.
The Open Doors 2004 survey was conducted by the Institute of International Education (IIE), funded by the US State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
A Los Angeles advocate for Arab-Americans is not surprised by the decrease. Ban Al-Wardi, an immigration lawyer and chairwoman of the Los Angeles/Orange County chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, says students are suffering from the fallout of the 11 September 2001 attacks.
Restrictive visa policies and special registrations implemented after 9/11 have nothing to do with security, she said.
"It's not a matter of security. These laws are racist, plain and simple," al-Wardi said.
Students from the Middle East make up 6% of all international students in the US, according to the Open Doors Survey. Overall, international student enrolment has fallen by 2.4% for 2003-04, compared with the previous academic year.
Entry rules have become stricter
following the attacks of 9/11
"We have many concerns regarding this decrease," Allan Goodman, president and CEO of IIE, said. "We need to make sure this decrease does not become a trend."
Contributing to the decline are harsher visa regimes, increasingly negative perceptions of the US, and growing competition from English-speaking countries in Europe and Canada, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) says.
"Two of these factors are very much related to 9/11 while global competition has always been a long-term trend," Heath Brown, director of research and policy analysis for the CGS, says.
Tamer Awad, 32, says he was amazed at how different visa-renewal policies became after 9/11.
Awad, who will earn his PhD in pharmacal sciences this summer at Auburn University in Alabama, came to the US as an international student from Egypt in January 2001.
"It's not a matter of security. These laws are racist, plain and simple"
Los Angeles/Orange County Chapter, Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee
"When I first applied for a visa to America to study as an international student, it was so fast," Awad says. "I got it in a matter of 48 hours."
Awad, who is also president of his university's Egyptian Student Association, received a scholarship to study for four years at Auburn University, but an error in his paperwork through the university required him to have to renew his visa in April 2003.
"Can you imagine, it only took 48 hours for me to get a visa when I first came to America," he said. "But after [9/11] it took about seven months for my visa to be renewed."
Awad said he was unable to leave the US while his papers were being processed for a new visa, in fear he would not be allowed to re-enter the states.
He received his new visa in October 2003.
While Awad only had to deal with the complications of waiting seven months to receive his new visa, he said some of his Arab friends have not been as lucky.
US universities see international
students as an asset for campus
"Many friends of mine are still waiting for their visas and had to put their education on hold or have gone through many extensive interviews," Awad says.
University administrators want foreign students to study in the US, Barry Toiv, director of communications and public affairs for the Association of American Universities (AAU), says, but US policies may be sending a different message.
"It has been said both privately and publicly that international students are welcome and encouraged to study in America," says Toiv. "But actions are more important, and in this respect, our national policies need to reflect this message."
Restrictive visa policies do little
to enhance security, critics say
After 9/11, US immigration authorities began work on a $36 million tracking system that linked the federal government to the nation's colleges.
The federal Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which started in mid-2003, provided information on foreign students, from identities and addresses to grades, to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, the programme keeps the US safe, while monitoring and facilitating the entry and exit process of foreign students.
Al-Wardi says SEVIS violates basic rights of privacy for foreign students. Universities have to report through SEVIS a student's grades or whether a student is taking too many courses in a subject like chemistry, because it may raise concerns that the student may be using the education to learn how to make weapons to use against the US.
"Many friends of mine are still waiting for their visas and had to put their education on hold or have gone through many extensive interviews"
Egyptian postdoc student at Alabama University
These types of burdens are things international students do not want to deal with anymore, she says.
According to Toiv, government needs to take the right steps in protecting the security of America.
"Always be mindful, we in the academic community feel it was necessary to revise visa policies in the wake of 9/11. But with that said, many of us feel the government went farther than it should have," Toiv says. "This was not productive at all."
Al-Wardi says the tradition of America is to have the best and the brightest attend its universities.
"Unfortunately, this huge wall has been built to block outside thinking. Middle Eastern students are being turned away. Any intellectual student will not feel free here."
International students are considered an important addition to the campus environment.
"Even losing one foreign student is too many to lose," Goodman says. "Having foreign students on American campuses allows them and us to learn each other's cultures and values."
Leidy Lim, 20, an international student from Papua New Guinea at California State University, Northridge, said that coming to the US has made her more understanding.
"We the youth physically need to travel around the world to understand one another, or we will just keep on being ignorant of one another."