By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 2, 2005
Stu Vetter, head coach of the boys' basketball team at Montrose Christian, has for more than a decade looked overseas for teenage prospects. Back in August 2002, he had his sights fixed on three boys from Nigeria who, international scouts told him, were locks for spots on the acclaimed basketball team at the Rockville private school.
But something was different that August. Try as he might, Vetter could not get the State Department to approve student visas for the three boys. The reason was the tightened visa restrictions imposed by the U.S. government following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Vetter flew to Lagos to appeal directly to the U.S. Embassy. Told initially to come back in six months, Vetter and his assistant, David Adkins, returned to the embassy the following day instead and joined a line of hundreds of Nigerians seeking U.S. visas. As they waited, Vetter began talking to an armed security guard, who, as it turned out, was not only an American but also just happened to be from Rockville and knew where Montrose Christian was located on Randolph Road.
"The guy grew up on Rockville Pike," Vetter recounted. "He walked us into the embassy, right to the front of the line, and got us all three visas. If I would have walked in there, that would have never happened. If it hadn't have happened, they would have never gotten out of the country."
The three Nigerian boys, Uche Echefu, Tunji Soroye and Collins Okafor, were the lucky ones. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the ability of elite high school programs such as Montrose Christian to recruit -- and land -- top international players has grown far more difficult. Schools have had to reconcile the desire to recruit top overseas talents with tighter immigration scrutiny from the State Department and Department of Homeland Security, and a much more thorough visa process.
International enrollment at U.S. high schools and colleges dropped by 39 percent after Sept. 11, according to the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, a private nonprofit organization based in Alexandria that focuses on international student exchange. Last year's 0.9 percent increase was the first reversal since 2001.
While the council does not maintain records for the number of student-athletes affected, it says the tightened visa restrictions are affecting recruiting by elite high school basketball teams. "The issue of athletic participation is a very hot issue right now," said John Hishmeh, the council's executive director. "It seems to be more of an issue at secondary schools."
International recruitment of athletes has become a staple at many high-profile basketball programs at private U.S. high schools over the past decade. Coaches typically learn about the players through international scouts or big-time U.S. college programs, which hope to see the players steered back to them after they graduate from high school.
At the end of this regular season, NBA rosters included 10 players who were born abroad, came to the United States for high school before going on to college and then the NBA, or directly to the NBA. Five of those players -- Chicago's Luol Deng, Cleveland's DeSagana Diop and Jerome Moiso, Golden State's Adonal Foyle, and Minnesota's Ndudi Ebi -- were first-round draft picks.
Now, Vetter and other coaches say, getting student-athletes like them into the United States is becoming problematic.
"You would have seen more international players in the [Washington Catholic Athletic Conference] this year if it weren't for" Sept. 11, said Gonzaga Coach Steve Turner. "I get at least one call a week from a college coach, agent or parent [regarding an international player]. I tell them, 'Send me the paperwork.' They never do."
Said Vetter, "It's fair to say that it is tougher to get a kid out of Africa at this point" compared to before Sept. 11. The continent, long considered a hotbed of basketball talent, is also considered a "high-fraud" area by the State Department.
"It cuts right to the heart of what lies a very delicate balance for us," said Angela Agler, spokesperson for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, explaining the United States' cautious approach to immigration with its desire to maintain a diverse international demographic.
Some scouts think Echefu, a 6-foot-8 power forward, might become a star. While Soroye and Okafor just completed their freshman seasons at Virginia and Marshall, respectively, Echefu, 19, blossomed into one of the nation's top high school recruits this season. He has more than a dozen top-tier colleges, including national champion North Carolina, Duke and Maryland, hoping he accepts their scholarship offer during the NCAA's late-signing period, which runs through May 18.
"I'm just fortunate and lucky. I never thought I would be able to come here," said Echefu, who, had he remained in Nigeria, said he would be playing soccer and hoping to attend college. "That doesn't really happen too often in Nigeria. . . . In Nigeria, it's always hard to get to the embassy and get your visa."
While several coaches said the increased security measures have eliminated some of the over-age players who get into the United States on false information, such as phony birth certificates, it has also made it difficult for schools to bring over legitimate players.
Notre Dame Academy, in Middleburg, has had at least one international player each season since 1997. According to J.D. Almond, the school's athletic director from 1998 to 2003: "We went through their embassies. Allies like England were easy, but African nations were tough, and once 9/11 happened, we stopped. The biggest thing was finding out their ages. Documentation wasn't something they did. If they weren't born in a hospital, there wasn't anything to document it. . . . If you don't have a birth certificate, how do you get a passport?"
Three of the 19 terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks were allowed into the United States on either a student visa or granted permission to stay as students. Following the attacks, the newly formed Department of Homeland Security announced plans to create the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). It was established on Jan. 30, 2003. SEVIS is an electronic database -- replacing the old system of paper records -- that tracks all international students and exchange visitors, their arrival and departure dates, living arrangements and course of study.
"Before, kids couldn't be caught at the border, even if their information wasn't correct," said Peggy Blumenthal, vice president of research and education for the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit group that promotes education exchange. "The border guard didn't have a database with everything about the student and his application process at the touch of a finger."
In order to obtain a student visa, students must be accepted into a school whose academic and financial standings meet approval from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and complies with SEVIS record keeping. Then they must show they have a host household in the Unites States. Only then can a student be eligible to appear for an interview -- a new, post-9/11 requirement -- at the U.S. Embassy of their home country. As of Oct. 26, 2004, all visa applicants must submit to scans of both index fingers.
"Anyone coming here on a student visa has to overcome the presumption of immigrant intent," said Crystal L. Williams, deputy director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "There is a presumption under law that anyone who wants to come here wants to stay here forever. If [embassy officers] think the goal of the student is to do that, they can deny [the visa application] immediately.
"The immigrant-intent basis is their fallback. They could just say, 'I don't like the feel of this one.' There is much more of a conservative sense among the officers. They say, 'I don't want to be the one who grants the next Mohamed Atta his visa.' "
Finding a host family post-Sept. 11 has also grown difficult for prospective exchange students. The cost, upwards of $1,000 a month, can be prohibitive in the current economic climate. In addition, what many referred to as the "xenophobic factor" has grown significantly since the terrorist attacks.
"There's a perception among international students that they're not wanted here," Williams said.
Not only might students have to travel hundreds of miles on unpaved roads to the U.S. Embassy for the interview, they must also demonstrate that they intend to return to their home country upon completing school. This could be particularly problematic for students who hope to parlay a high school scholarship into a college education and perhaps a chance at pro basketball.
Many recruits come from families with little or no money and with no relatives in the United States. The chance to come to a U.S. high school and earn a college athletic scholarship is like hitting the jackpot.
"There's a basic feeling that given the hard economic conditions back home that no one is going back," said Richard Nyamboli, an official at the Embassy of Cameroon in Washington. "The tendency is to say 'no' before they even start the screening. . . . When you go to the American embassy in Cameroon, you find longer lines than there were before. It's discouraged them" from applying.
Said Jonathan Ginsburg, a Fairfax immigration attorney: "How in the hell is a high-school student going to prove that [he has financial holdings], especially if he's coming from a high-fraud area like the entire continent of Africa? What is it about some kid who's tall and athletic that he's going to want to come back? The kid will get recruited, he'll go on to college and he'll stay here."