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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Rules for exchange students being revised

Stricter student visa laws disrupted German student Robert Bechlin’s attendance at Lewis and Clark High School during the last school year.

He was forced to return to Germany while his visa was processed by the Department of Homeland Security.

His experience helped inspire a proposed change in cultural exchange programs at Spokane Public Schools.

On Wednesday, the school board will hear a second reading of a new policy that will allow only those foreign-exchange students who come through certain agencies. Students could no longer arrive without a sponsoring agency, and ask the school district to sponsor them.

During the 2003-2004 academic year, Bechlin arrived on his own. He stayed with a local family and asked the Spokane Public Schools for help with his student visa, which allows him to stay longer than a tourist visa.

Homeland Security laws became cumbersome for the district last year, and Bechlin was forced to return to his home country until his visa could be processed. He eventually returned to finish the year.

“The school district really felt as though we were not supporting this student like we wanted to,” said Emmett Arndt, district director of high schools.

The duties of wading through federal policies fell on one student-service employee, Arndt said.

Exchange students, for the most part, who come with a foreign exchange organization, arrive with completed J-1 visas. Students who come on their own arrangements with the intention of joining an American school for a year, must pay tuition and obtain an F-1 visa.

Getting an F-1 means a school essentially sponsors the student and must fill out a form and get it cleared through a U.S. embassy in the student’s home country, which takes weeks.

“The district no longer has the staff or resources to comply with the required … documentation for these students wanting F-1 visas,” Arndt wrote in a memo to an associate superintendent.

The new requirements are part of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, also called SEVIS, an online database that tracks international students. It’s run by the Department of Homeland Security.

Arndt said he received calls from a person in the community over the summer who wanted to bring in a student from Peru for the year.

“They thought they could just fly the student in and we could do all the paperwork,” Arndt said.

Arndt said he told the man that just wasn’t possible anymore. Under the new policy, students must arrive in conjunction with an exchange agency that is also a member of a non-profit group called the Council on Standards for International Education Travel.

The council has about 70 members, the majority of student exchange groups.

“Our accredited program sponsors about 25,000 exchange students a year,” said John Hishmeh, executive director of the council.

Hishmeh applauded the proposed district policy and said it will go a long way toward reducing bureaucratic nightmares. Washington and Oregon are two states that draw substantial numbers of exchange students, Hishmeh said. Member organizations bring in between 800 to 900 students per year.

“Our goal is to have more and more schools adopt this rule,” Hishmeh said.

That doesn’t come as a surprise to Eric Carlson, president and CEO of Academic Exchange of America. The AEA is an exchange organization that has chosen not to join CSIET, Carlson said from his headquarters in Chehalis, Wash.

“They sell themselves as providing the silver bullet to all school and all states,” Carlson said. “The only thing they are overseeing is the ability to exclude smaller and middle-size organizations.”

Carlson’s organization places about 100 students in the United States annually.

Carlson said the U.S. State Department does the same work as the council. The difference is the council takes a fee and only the largest organizations can afford to join, he said.

“I chose not to participate in the CSIET. That way as an organization we can keep our prices down,” Carlson said.

He warned that using only CSIET member agencies won’t solve the district’s hassles.

“It sounds good and looks good on paper, but it won’t do it. Sometimes these things happen,” Carlson said.

He knows by first-hand experience.

An overseas travel agency working with Carlson’s company prematurely shipped eight Taiwanese students to Spokane in the fall 2003, even when told to keep them in their home country, Carlson said. That created a chaotic situation, but students were eventually placed into host homes. Carlson said he cut ties with the Taiwanese agent after the incident.

So far, the state has done little to regulate the exchange industry, said assistant attorney general, Dave Stolier, who works primarily in primary and secondary school issues.

This past fall, he started getting calls from school district officials around the state who were struggling with exchange students who had appeared at the schools’ doorstep without the proper papers.

“It creates a problem when the district doesn’t know they’re coming,” Stolier said. “I started looking into it really for my own curiosity’s sake.”

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