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FYI Number 29: March 11, 2005

GAO Documents Improvements in Visa Application Process

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.

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

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