On February 16, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released
a report entitled, "Border Security: Streamlined Visas Mantis
Program Has Lowered Burden on Foreign Science Students and Scholars,
but Further Refinements Needed." The title succinctly summarizes
the report's main message: Improvements enacted by the Departments of
State and Homeland Security have made the visa application process far
less burdensome to foreign students and scientists than it was in the
wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But the report also
points out that some of the improvements have yet to be fully implemented.
According to the GAO report, thousands of international students and
scholars apply for visas to come to the U.S. each year. Some must undergo
a security check called Visas Mantis, which is intended to identify
those who may pose a national security threat by illegally transferring
sensitive technologies. Consular officers must determine whether the
Mantis check should be conducted, based on the applicant's background
and whether his or her proposed activities in the U.S. could involve
exposure to technologies on the Technology Alert List. Tighter restrictions
established after 9/11, coupled with insufficient staff and technology
to handle the increased workload, led to delays and backlogs. According
to Janice Jacobs, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Visa Affairs at
the State Department, the number of cases submitted for Mantis review
jumped from around 7,000 before 9/11 to nearly 20,000 after, with visas
actually being denied in only about 2 percent of cases. Tales of scientists
unable to receive visas in time for scientific conferences, or students
in time for the start of classes, prompted the scientific and academic
communities to voice concerns to federal agencies and on Capitol Hill.
In response, the Departments of State and Homeland Security (DHS) took
a number of actions to improve the processing of Mantis cases. These
actions included: adding more staff, providing additional guidance and
feedback to consular officers, developing an electronic tracking system
for applications, clarifying each participating agency's responsibilities,
emphasizing that students and scholars should receive priority in scheduling
visa interviews, and extending the validity of Mantis clearances from
one year to four years for students and two years for exchange visitors.
A previous GAO study determined that in the spring of 2003, a Visas
Mantis check took an average of 67 days, and also found consular officers
unsure of when a Mantis check should be implemented and what information
was required. By November of 2004, as documented in the recent GAO report,
the average processing time for Visas Mantis cases had been reduced
to 15 days. The number of cases pending after 60 days was also substantially
reduced, from 410 in February 2004 to 63 by October of the same year.
The GAO concluded that, "in 2004, State, DHS, and the FBI collaborated
successfully to reduce Mantis processing times." However, it also
states that "opportunities remain to further refine the Visas Mantis
program and facilitate legitimate travel to the United States."
In particular, GAO notes that some confusion still exists among consular
officers about the Mantis process, and not all relevant federal agencies
are completely connected to the electronic tracking system that would
speed up the process. The GAO recommends establishing a formal timeframe
for fully connecting all agencies, and providing additional opportunities
for consular officers to interact with officials at the State Department.
"We've come a really long way," stated Matt Owens, Senior
Federal Relations Officer for the Association of American Universities,
at a February 18 session on this topic at the annual meeting of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science. C. Stewart Verdery,
the then-Assistant Secretary for Border/Transportation Security Policy
at DHS, commended the university community for being "persistent
and really effective." Jacobs said that "we at State fully,
fully understand and support the whole concept of exchange...and bringing
in the best and brightest" students. "We have really made
an effort," she said, "to try to turn cases around as quickly
as we can."
David Goldston, Chief of Staff for the House Science Committee, called
it "remarkable" that such progress could be made in a relatively
short period of time. But he added that everyone who has a stake in
this issue "should remain vigilant." It is important to increase
awareness, especially among Members of Congress, of "how much we
depend on foreign students and scientists" and how important cultural
exchange is, he warned. "It is not the case that these students
are displacing U.S. students," he added, noting that he would like
to see "more U.S. students as well."
Owens mentioned several additional areas where AAU would like to see
further improvements made, including developing reciprocity agreements
with other countries for extended visa validity, and modifying Section
214B of the immigration law. This section, as Jacobs explained, requires
that student and exchange visitor visa applicants demonstrate that they
do not intend to immigrate to the U.S. She noted, however that the SEVIS
(Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) program has been helpful,
because consular officers can now confirm that an applicant has been
accepted as a student at a U.S. institution.
"The conflict is not just in the law," Goldston said; "it
is in the attitude behind the law." He noted that while the U.S.
wants foreign S&T workers and students, "on the other hand,"
there is concern that they will displace U.S. workers. "My guess,"
he said, is that "it's not something people are really going to
deal with." He noted that it predated 9/11 and has not proved to
be a significant barrier, and he cautioned against initiating an immigration
debate in Congress over this issue.
The GAO report is available at http://www.gao.gov;
type in the report number (GAO-05-198) when asked for Keyword or Report
Number in the upper right hand corner.