Over the last few months, Indians coming to study in the U.S. have been turned away at surprisingly high rates.
According to data provided to Fusion by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, for most of 2015, less than 20 Indian students a month were denied entry into the country while going through immigration control. But in December, that number skyrocketed: a total of 398 students were not allowed into the U.S. In January 2016, 322 students were denied.
These numbers only include Indians who actually attempted to go through border processing with a U.S. student visa, and don't include students who applied for a visa and were denied one while still in India.
The reasons behind the spike in Indians being denied entry aren’t clear. "Applicants for admission bear the burden of proof to establish that they are clearly eligible to enter the U.S. In order to demonstrate that they are admissible, the applicant must overcome ALL grounds of inadmissibility," a CBP spokesperson said in a statement, declining to address why the numbers increased so dramatically.
The overall number of Indians entering the U.S. on a student visa also increased in December and especially January, likely because of students returning to school from winter break. But that jump isn’t enough to explain the increase in students denied entry, especially because increases in admissions earlier in the year didn't result in any increase in rejected students. In December 2015, about 2.5% of all Indians who attempted to enter the country on a student visa were denied entry.
At least some of those rejected were attending two colleges in the San Francisco Bay area: Silicon Valley University in San Jose and Northwestern Polytechnic University in Fremont. In late December, 19 students on their way to study at the two schools were prevented from boarding a flight to San Francisco after Air India authorities told them that the schools were under scrutiny from American immigration authorities, the Times of India reported. Another 14 students were turned away the next week after trying to go through U.S. customs in Abu Dhabi.
Both schools, which are accredited and offer technical degrees, have denied that they are on any kind of immigration “blacklist.” Over 90% of students at both schools are from foreign countries, and most from India. A Times of India reporter who visited the campuses called the schools “dodgy,” suggesting that some students were more interested in getting a visa to the U.S. than a real education.
But the immigration statistics provided to Fusion suggest that the problem is larger than these two specific colleges. Indian media organizations have also reported students being denied entry while going to schools in Chicago. According to the Deccan Herald, some students said they had been "taken to a local jail and were grilled for hours and were not served proper food," before being sent back to India on another flight.
Shah Peerally, an Indian-American immigration lawyer who works in the Bay Area, told me he had received about 100 calls from students who had been denied entry or were facing other immigration problems over the last two months, a big jump from previous years. Most of the students were set to attend technical schools in the area, he said, and were sent back to India after failing to satisfactorily answer questions during an interview while entering the U.S.
“I’ve had cases that I’ve never seen before, where they are being questioned for very minor things,” Peerally said. “Many of the people who come to the U.S., they pay their hard-earned money to study here… Why make them go through these hurdles and harassment?”
So why is the spike in denials happening? One possible explanation is that border agents may have increased scrutiny of applicants across the board following the Dec. 2 attacks in San Bernardino, California. One of the shooters who killed 14 people was admitted under a fiancé visa.
A stricter review of Indian students might also have to do with growing controversy over the use of programs that allow foreign students to work while in the U.S. Some groups have blamed Optional Practical Training, a temporary work permit for foreign students, for taking U.S. jobs.
With Customs and Border Protection officials declining to comment further, though, it's hard to know for sure. If you're an Indian student who's been denied entry to the U.S. even though you had a visa, send me an email.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.