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FYI Number 72: June 9, 2004

Organizations Urge Changes to Student, Scientist Visa Processing

"We are committed to working with the federal government to construct a visa system that protects the nation from terrorists while enhancing our nation's security not only by barring inappropriate visitors but also by enabling the brightest and most qualified international students, scholars, and scientists to participate fully in the U.S. higher education and research enterprises." -- Statement and Recommendations on Visa Problems Harming America's Scientific, Economic, and Security Interests

A call for the federal government to revise its visa policies for students and scientists was issued on May 12 by 25 science, engineering, and education organizations. The signatories include the National Academies of Science and Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Association of American Universities, and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. Two AIP Member Societies, the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers, also signed the statement.

The increasing number of visa applications undergoing time-consuming reviews (initiated by either the Department of State or the Department of Homeland Security) has increased substantially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, leading to a backlog of applications and delays in processing that have caused some foreign scientists to miss conferences and students to miss classes. According to AAAS, between 2000 and 2002, the number of non-immigrant visa applications being reviewed under a screening procedure known as Visas Mantis grew from 1,000 to 14,000. (A 2003 report by AIP's Statistical Research Center, at www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/international.pdf, documents the impacts of visa delays on physics graduate departments.)

"We strongly support the federal government's efforts to establish new visa policies and procedures to bolster security," the statement says. "However, we believe that some of the new procedures and policies, along with a lack of sufficient resources, have made the visa issuance process inefficient, lengthy, and opaque. We are deeply concerned that this had led to a number of unintended consequences detrimental to science, higher education, and the nation." The statement continues, "In particular, there is increasing evidence that visa-related problems are discouraging and preventing the best and brightest international students, scholars, and scientists from studying and working in the United States, as well as attending academic and scientific conferences here and abroad. If action is not taken soon to improve the visa system, the misperception that the United States does not welcome international students, scholars, and scientists will grow.... The damage to our nation's higher education and scientific enterprises, economy, and national security would be irreparable. The United States cannot hope to maintain its present scientific and economic leadership position if it becomes isolated from the rest of the world."

The statement offers policymakers six recommendations for improving the visa process. The recommendations are summarized below:

1. To avoid repetitive security checks and lengthy visa issuance delays, extend the validity of Visas Mantis clearances for students, scientists and scholars from a one-year period to the full duration of their course of study or academic appointment.

2. Establish a timely and efficient process whereby F and J visa holders can revalidate their visas or begin the revalidation process before leaving the U.S. for academic, business or personal reasons.

3. Create a mechanism to inform visa applicants and their sponsors about the status of pending applications, and ensure that applications pending for longer than 30 days receive priority.

4. To ensure consistent treatment of visa applicants, provide updated training to U.S. embassy consular staff, to include the appropriate use of screening tools and proper protocols for initiating a Visas Mantis review.

5. Revise visa reciprocity agreements with key countries sending students, such as China and Russia, to extend the duration of visas and reduce repetitive visa renewals.

6. Implement a fee collection system for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) that allows for a variety of quick, secure, simple fee payment methods.

The full text of the "Statement and Recommendations on Visa Problems Harming America's Scientific, Economic, and Security Interests," along with the list of signatories, can be viewed at http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2004/0512visa.pdf. Further information on the statement can be found at http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2004/0512visa.shtml.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3094

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