By Desirée Scorcia
As a result of last fall's terrorist attacks and a growing fear that the US borders are poorly guarded, the federal government is instigating major changes in the way visa applications are screened and foreign students are tracked in the US. Many of these changes have the academic community worried that the benefits of free, international collaboration will be devalued and science and technology will suffer.
The uncertainty began last October, when President Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) into law. It ordered the creation of an interagency panel to screen long-term visa applications and prevent possible terrorists from entering the country. The situation got more complicated when the president announced his intention to build a new Department of Homeland Defense, which could dramatically change the distribution of authority over border controls.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the State Department designed the Interagency Panel on Advanced Science and Security (IPASS) without any knowledge of Bush's plan to propose the new Department of Homeland Defense. The new department will oversee intelligence and law enforcement and will control the borders, duties that now belong to the INS and the Department of Justice.
"The Homeland Security Department won't affect how IPASS works," says Wendy Hall, senior policy analyst at the OSTP. "It's still going to work as we intended earlier, and it should be operational in a short time."
Under the present system, INS consular officials, many of whom have little or no science training, hold all of the responsibility for visa issuance in foreign embassies. Often, they need help distinguishing science that merely sounds like a threat to national security from science that might pose a real risk. While the permanent panel is being set up, an interim panel is issuing these advisories.
If IPASS works as envisioned by the OSTP, the consular officials will refer suspicious-looking visa applications to IPASS. While no firm guidelines are set, OSTP says it will probably look carefully at applicants from terrorist-sponsoring countries and those who wish to study in fields "uniquely available" in the US or its closest allies.
Many in the scientific and academic communities were alarmed by the idea of a panel to screen science visas and feared stringent restrictions might prevent those with honest intentions from entering the US. The OSTP is aware of this concern.
"From its inception, we have been seeking input from those in academic and science community," said Kathryn Harrington, communications director at OSTP. "We met with representatives from that community, let them know about IPASS, and asked for their thoughts and feelings."
President Bush's science advisor and OSTP director John Marburger said the panel expects to review 2,000 of nearly 200,000 science student visa applications the INS processes each year. He also confirmed that the panel would be strictly advisory, and the final authority to issue visas would remain with the counselor official who initially submitted the application for review. "Hopefully, it will have a very minimal impact on the flow of students and scholars to this country," said Vic Johnson, a public policy director at NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
But APS members are already reporting unusual problems obtaining short-term visas for their colleagues abroad.
Joseph Birman, a physics professor at City College and City University of New York, said that three senior Russian scientists he had invited to a conference in Boston were unable to attend because their visas were not processed in time. Birman added that while many physicists understand the importance of applying for visas as soon as possible, it can be impossible to invite foreign colleagues and offer them a guaranteed travel allowance any sooner than two months before the conference begins.
"A number of people pointed out that it makes foreigners not want to come to the states," he said. "I'm really concerned that important conferences might not be held here in the future, because who needs this kind of hassle?"
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