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US Visa Delays: Keeping Scientists from Where They Want to Be?

AIBS Washington Watch, April 2004

Adrienne Froelich

US agencies tasked with approving visas for visiting scientists have struggled in recent years to achieve Secretary of State Colin Powell's vision of "secure borders and open doors." One result is that new regulations and added layers of bureaucracy have added to significant delays in processing visas.

While previous discussion focused mainly on anecdotal evidence, a new report from the Government Accounting Office (GAO) indicates that the science community's concern over delays is justified. In its report, GAO concluded that whether or not an applicant had to undergo a security check for those engaged in sensitive technologies, known as "Mantis," is the major determinant of the length of time it takes to process visas. Although the Mantis process is not new, the caseload expanded greatly after September 11.

Despite popular belief that delays in visa processing are attributable to US attempts to prevent terrorists from entering the country, officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of State, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently told the House Science Committee that a major goal of the process is to prevent dissemination of sensitive scientific information. Their claim is consistent with GAO's findings that delays in visa processing are caused primarily by Mantis requests.

All nonimmigrant visa applicants who wish to come to the United States to study, teach, research, or engage in business in various scientific and technical fields — sensors and sensor technology, marine technology, and remote sensing, imaging, and reconnaissance, for example — are subject to a Mantis background check by the FBI, if a State Department consular officer requests one. Several problems with the process cause delays in resolving Mantis requests, including improperly formatted requests and uncertainty by consular staff at posts as to when they should apply Mantis checks. GAO found that it takes an average of 67 days to approve a visa through the Mantis process. For applicants from China, India, and Russia, the wait is generally longer: In September 2003, more than 400 visa applicants from these countries were still outstanding after 60 days. Also adding to the lengthy waits is the requirement that all nonimmigrant visa applicants — not just those from "risky" countries — undergo a personal interview at a consulate.

And consular officers are not likely to take the interview process lightly or to forgo Mantis requests: New regulations have been put in place that would make consular officers criminally liable if they issue a visa to someone who later commits a terrorist act. House Science Committee Chair Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) asked Janice Jacobs, assistant secretary of state, whether those regulations were causing consular officers to be "excessively cautious." She replied that the consular officers in the field feel that they have an obligation to refer cases to Washington for further scrutiny.

David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, told the committee that another reason things seem to be taking longer is that State had a lot of ground to regain because security procedures before September 11 had been inadequate. He noted, "During the period of the '80s, either because of underfunding, because of preoccupation with drug trafficking, with illegal immigration, INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service, whose functions were transferred to DHS in March 2003] was really not focusing on student visas, so it was a very badly broken system before 9/11 and needed to be improved."

Regardless of their cause, visa delays are affecting science on many levels. While much of the discussion has focused on scientists from abroad being unable to attend scientific conferences, US government initiatives are also being impaired. US embassy officials in Moscow told GAO that the visa process is hindering congressionally mandated nonproliferation goals, primarily because of the difficulty in getting former Soviet Union scientists to critical US government-sponsored exchanges. The enhanced security is also frustrating those in the United States who are responsible for facilitating international cooperation. NASA officials at foreign posts told GAO that up to 20 percent of their time is spent dealing with visa issues when they should be focusing on program issues.

In response to the GAO report, State acknowledged its problems: "We were slow. We have taken strong measures to improve — and we will continue to do so." Congress would prefer to see those changes implemented sooner rather than later. Rep. Boehlert warned State, DHS, and the FBI to be prepared to report back to the House Science Committee in six months, saying, "We can't have a visa system that needlessly discourages and alienates scientists from around the world who could be a boon to this country."

Adrienne Froelich () is director of the AIBS Public Policy Office.

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