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Update on U.S. Visas for Scientists

Update on U.S. Visas for Scientists


In February, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) released their report, „Border Security: Improvements Needed to Reduce Time Taken to Adjudicate Visas for Science Students and Scholars,” concluding a study to determine how long it takes a science student or scholar to obtain a nonimmigrant visa, which factors contribute to the duration of the process and what measures are being implemented to improve the process and decrease the number of pending cases. The study was commissioned by the Committee on Science of the U.S. House of Representatives.

One of the most significant factors contributing to long processing times of visa applications is the additional security check called Visas Mantis, the report noted. This extra step, to prevent transfer of technology to foreign governments that might threaten U.S. national security, involves review of the application by the Department of State’s Bureau of Nonproliferation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other federal agencies.

Consular officers decide whether or not to submit an application for Mantis review based on guidance accompanying a Technology Alert List (TAL). Although the most recent TAL is not available to the public, the August 2002 version encourages consular officers to submit applications pertaining to the fields on the „Critical Fields List” for review unless they are sure that technology transfer to hostile entities will not be an issue. The list includes keywords to look for on applications of scientific researchers and students, such as global positioning system, biochemistry, immunology, superconductivity, and civil engineering. This means that consular officers without a scientific background could send a significant proportion of science and engineering applications for Mantis review.

In fact, due to an expanded TAL and increased caution overall, the number of applications being sent for review has increased dramatically since September 11, 2001. Approximately 1,000 cases were submitted for Mantis review in 2000; 2,500 in 2001; and 14,000 in 2002. If the April–June 2003 quarter as studied by the GAO was representative of the entire year, there were 20,000 or more cases in 2003, with more than half being from scientific scholars and researchers.

According to Stewart Patt, spokesman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, these reviews used to be processed regionally by three people working part-time, but a centralized office was established last year with five full-time employees for Visas Mantis. Patt says that the duration of the average review has been cut in half over the past year, and that 85% of all Visas Mantis cases are resolved in less than one month. The GAO study found that the average duration of a Mantis review for a scientific, nonimmigrant visa application was 67 days between April and June 2003. When adding in the wait to get an interview and an additional time for the consulate to notify the applicant, scientific students and researchers whose cases are sent through Visas Mantis receive an answer on average three months after submitting their application. Until recently, visa holders leaving the U.S. risked being detained for another Mantis check prior to being able to re-enter the U.S. Now Visas Mantis security clearances are valid for one year if the applicant is returning to the same activity in the same location.

Evaluation of a possible scientific threat comes primarily from the consular officers themselves, the Department of State’s Bureau of Nonproliferation, outside experts that may be called upon by this bureau and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Interagency Panel on Advanced Science and Security (IPASS), announced in May 2002, was promoted as a vehicle for „embedding technical expertise” in the process and „would provide systematic input from scientific experts to define and identify the ‘sensitive areas’ mentioned in the Presidential directive.” Although a representative from the Office of Science & Technology Policy pointed to IPASS as one of the answers to the problem of visas for scientists as recently as October 2003, IPASS does not exist and, according to a member of the Department of Homeland Security, the administration concluded that IPASS „didn’t make sense and so decided not to do it.”

Some consular officers interviewed for the GAO report were not comfortable using the TAL and did not have a clear understanding of the Visas Mantis process. Patt says the State Department is now putting a lot of effort to ensure that the consular officers know how to use the TAL and the Visas Mantis system. Specifically, all new officers received specialized Mantis training. In addition, the Bureau of Nonproliferation is attending some consular conferences to train the previously hired officers. Nevertheless, the GAO report’s recommendations included providing additional information about the Visas Mantis system to the consular officers and making the data-storage systems of the different agencies compatible with each other.

The state department does not track the total number of applications being sent for Mantis review but points out that it is a small fraction of the total number of applications. This may be the case, but, for multiple reasons, the number of visa applications has steadily declined after September 2001. The graph below shows the number of F1 visas issued and denied for the past four years. F1 is the only visa category that exclusively encompasses students—not their family members, and not other categories of visitors such as those coming to work summer jobs. The number of visa applications in 2000 was not available.

F1 Visa Applications

For a country whose scientific infrastructure depends heavily on international students and researchers, it is critical for the future of science in the U.S. to reverse or at least halt this trend. [Data source: U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs]