Stu Vetter, head coach of the boys' basketball team at Montrose Christian, has for more than a decade looked overseas for teen-age 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, Md.,...
WASHINGTON — Stu Vetter, head coach of the boys’ basketball team at Montrose Christian, has for more than a decade looked overseas for teen-age 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, Md., 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. The reason was 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 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 happened to be from Rockville.
“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.”
Those three Nigerians, Uche Echefu, Tunji Soroye and Collins Okafor, were lucky. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, recruiting — and landing — top international players has grown far more difficult. 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 that focuses on international student exchange. Last year’s 0.9 percent increase was the first reversal since 2001.
While the council does not track the number of student-athletes affected, it says 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.”
Coaches typically learn about players through international scouts or big-time U.S. college programs, which hope the players will be steered to them later.
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 — 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 difficult.
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, a hotbed of basketball talent, is also considered a “high-fraud” area by the State Department.
“It cuts right to the heart of what … (is) a very delicate balance for us,” said Angela Agler, spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, referring to the United States’ cautious approach to immigration with its desire to maintain a diverse international demographic.
“I’m just fortunate and lucky. I never thought I would be able to come here,” said Echefu, a 6-foot-8 power forward. He has scholarhip offers from more than a dozen top-tier colleges, including national champion North Carolina, Duke and Maryland. Had he remained in Nigeria, he 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.”
Soroye and Okafor just completed their freshman seasons at Virginia and Marshall, respectively.
While several coaches said the increased security measures have eliminated some over-age players getting 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.
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. The Department of Homeland Security created the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) on Jan. 30, 2003. SEVIS is an electronic database — replacing paper records — that tracks international students and exchange visitors, their arrival and departure dates, living arrangements and course of study.
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. 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 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.
“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.’ “