Frustrated foreign physicists turn to the APS for help.
If the number of calls for help received by the APS International Affairs office is any guide, more and more physicists abroad are being frustrated in their attempts to get the visas they need to pursue collaborations or attend meetings in the United States.
According to Irving Lerch, Director of International Affairs, the office is handling between three and five requests a week, many from physicists on the "sensitive countries" list like India, China and Russia, whereas a year ago the number might have been one or two a month. While the APS is often successful in interceding with consular officials with supporting information and clarifications, Lerch cautions that it is crucial for potential hosts to get involved. Helping with the proper documentation is of course essential, but it is also necessary to learn about some of the more common impediments to granting visas imposed by the law and various regulations.
"The State Department has a web site with a great deal of information and each major consulate also has a web site," he says. "Check with the visa office of the host institution and don't be afraid to dig into http://www.travel.state.gov/visa which contains more than enough information on visas to occupy the mordant curiosity of any concerned colleague."
When asked to explain the dramatic increase in visa problems, Lerch points to several possible factors. A major one is lack of adequate staff at some of the busiest consulates abroad. He cites one consulate which employs seven principal foreign service officers, 270 local service staff, and 270 support personnel assigned in Washington, DC, to evaluate between 50,000-60,000 visa applications annually, to issue 25,000-30,000 passports, to process 6,000-7,000 birth certificates, and to serve the needs of a US expatriate population in excess of 250,000 (mostly armed forces personnel and their families). This means that the 7 foreign service officers must make-on average-from 200 to 250 decisions on visas alone each day. "There is no time for extended deliberation," Lerch says, and adds that because the consular officer is held responsible for enforcing US law, it is just easier to deny an application that isn't letter perfect than to try to correct it.
Another factor is the increasing complexity of the law. The embargo required by the technology transfer provisions against nuclear proliferation (India and Pakistan), the economic embargo against Cuba, the "sensitive countries list" which requires special processing of visa requests from many countries, and a panoply of laws designed to prevent access to US technologies all obstruct scientific exchange.
APS has formed a partnership with other organizations (AAAS, American Chemical Society, National Academy) to try to help the State Department and the US scientific community deal with these problems in a more systematic way, and is also examining how best to bring the issues before Congress and the Administration.
Finally, APS stands ready to help at the individual level. A scientist in need can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call any of the APS International Affairs staff: Irving A. Lerch (301) 209-3236; Michele Irwin (301) 209-3237; Jackie Beamon-Kiene (301) 209-3239.
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Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette