Severe Visa Problems Threaten Research Collaborations
By Pamela Zerbinos
In late September of last year, a graduate student studying physics at Columbia University went home to China for a three-week vacation. But she ran into some problems at the consulate, and ended up stuck there for more than six weeks - and she's one of the lucky ones.
The 27-year-old student, Shaohua Fu, works on the D-Zero experiment at Fermilab, and has been studying in the United States since August of 1998. Her work at D-Zero is not sensitive, she hasn't had any visa problems before, and she did everything she was supposed to do. She applied for an F1 visa at the Chengdu Consulate General, in southwestern China, two days after her arrival. As a returning student, she didn't need an interview.
"I was scheduled to pick up my visa on Oct. 7," she said. "But when I went there, I got my materials back with no visa, but a piece of paper informing me that I needed an interview." She booked an interview two days later.
"At the interview, the visa officer told me that because I was pursing a PhD in physics, he was not authorized to determine whether to give me a visa, and that my case must be submitted to Washington for a security check." This, she was told, would take three months. She was sent home to wait, without her passport, which prevented her from traveling in China.
"My supervisor [at D-Zero] and the secretary of my physics department both wrote letters explaining my student status and my research area. But I didn't know where they should send the letters. The consulate wouldn't tell me the address my case had been sent to, and they wouldn't reply to the faxes sent by the physics department."
With nothing to do except wait, Fu went home. She went online and found hundreds of other Chinese students with the same problem. One Internet newsgroup, "Student Visa for Chinese", has almost 300 members, and provides a place for them to trade stories, tips, information and encouragement.
Finally, she got a call on Nov. 14, saying her visa was ready.
"That was a pleasant surprise," she said. "I was expecting three months. After all this, I still think I am lucky."
Others haven't been so lucky. Another D-Zero graduate student, Zhong-Min Wang, who is enrolled in the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has been stuck in China since last July. Other D-Zero students and scientists from Vietnam, India and Russia have also run into difficulties, and in October of last year the collaboration was short 14 scientists.
Gerald Blazey, experiment co-spokesman, said they started noticing the problem during the summer of 2002.
"There was one case in particular that really brought the problem home to us," he said. "Some of our front-end electronics had fairly sophisticated programs that had been written and maintained by our Russian collaborators, and a problem developed that was causing inefficiencies in data collection. The individual who could fix it was stuck in Russia until his visa problem could be cleared up." Fortunately, D-Zero was able to get help from the Fermilab computing division.
The D-Zero collaboration consists of 600 scientists from 75 institutions in 50 countries. Half the scientists are not U.S. citizens, and a significant number of graduate students are foreign nationals. According to experiment co-spokesman John Womersley, there are 200 scientists at Fermilab working on D-Zero at any given time.
"There has been a relatively large number of collaborators who did not anticipate delays in getting visas processed," said Womersley. "These are all kinds of people-new graduate students, people who have been here many times before, people enrolled in PhD classes at American universities, and others from our collaborating institutions overseas. We can communicate with them by e-mail, but they're simply not allowed to enter the country. And for a lot of the tasks to do with operating the detector and developing the software and doing the analysis, they need to be here, they need to be able to visit and talk with people."
"If the larger visa issue isn't solved," said Blazey, "we will have trouble maintaining efficient operations. We'll have to divert money and personnel to deal with the systems traditionally our foreign collaborators handled."
Another danger is that institutions from the countries and regions having the most trouble-China, Russia, southeast Asia and the Middle East-will withdraw from the collaborations, leaving personnel and funding gaps that will be very difficult to fill domestically.
In October 2002, Blazey and three other D-Zero officials sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham to highlight the difficulties the collaboration was having, and included a list of the 14 scientists having trouble.
The President of APS has also sent letters highlighting the problem-both at D-Zero and in the physics community in general-to Secretaries Powell and Abraham, as well as CIA director George Tenet, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.
Since then, there has been a small amount of progress at D-Zero. "We haven't done a new census," said Womersley, "but there has been some progress on a few of the cases mentioned in the letter. On the other hand, I think an equal number of people have probably made it on to the list."
Fermilab is not the only place having difficulty. A 2002 APS survey of 79 PhD-granting physics departments revealed serious problems, particularly among smaller schools. Southern Methodist University, which has a small but high-quality program, had zero entering students this year because their two foreign admittees were not granted visas. "One more year of this, and we'll close down the program," said the SMU spokesman who filled out the survey.
Temple University, in Philadelphia, lost half its first-year graduate students due to visa problems. Other universities said that in the future, they will make fewer offers to international students, because they can't afford the possibility that the students will be unable to come at the last minute. Most of those expressed displeasure at the loss of talent and diversity this policy change would cause their programs.
"One of the things that frustrates people here," said Womersley, "is that the people having visa problems are the groups of people who would naturally be most accepting of the United States. The US is presenting a very bad public face to people who are influential and educated and who would be its natural friend. It creates a bad feeling, and these are the people who need to be wooed."
Womersley also mentioned a 1952 CBS documentary, made for the 10-year anniversary of Enrico Fermi's historic self-sustaining nuclear reaction. At the end of the show, the host, Edward R. Morrow, "made a very forceful argument about how all of these guys were foreigners who'd been welcomed into this country and produced nuclear technology when it was needed. It sent a very timely message."
APS is ready and willing to help individual scientists having difficulties with visas; Email: email@example.com or call any one of the APS International Affairs staff: Irving Lerch, (301) 209-3236; Michele Irwin, (301) 209-3237; or Jackie Beamon-Kiene (301) 209-3239.
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