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The Impact of Current Visa Restrictions on National Security

By William. A. Wulf

William Wulf
William Wulf

In the last few years the Presidents of the National Academies1 have issued joint statements on various subjects. Three of these statements2, 3, 4 have dealt with differing aspects of maximizing our national security by achieving the right balance between apparently conflicting goals.

There is no question that the balance point between openness and secrecy, for example, needed to be re- examined subsequent to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The balance that made sense for the cold war and involving two technologically advanced superpowers was not appropriate for the asymmetric relation between a superpower and a terrorist network. But it still needs to be a balance! Our security depends on both protection of certain sensitive information and on continual advances in science and technology—and those advances in turn depend upon an appropriate open exchange of information.

In much the same way, we need to re-examine the balance point for the ease with which foreign scientists and engineers can travel to this country. As with openness it is a balance point. As the Academies' Presidents said in our December 2002 statement: "To make our nation safer, it is extremely important that our visa policy not only keep out foreigners that intend to do us harm, but also facilitates the acceptance of those who bring us considerable benefit."

Recognizing that some measures may need to be taken to reduce the possibility that a terrorist will be admitted to the country, we need to also recognize that keeping everyone out would deprive us of the many contributions that immigrants have made to our security and prosperity. Without people like Einstein, Fermi, von Braun—all immigrants—we would not have become a superpower, nor would we enjoy the scientific and engineering leadership from which our prosperity flows. More recently, students have come to our major research universities, stayed, and become leaders of academia and technology-based industry. Those that return to their home countries and attained leadership positions are also among our best ambassadors.

Although there is some evidence of improvements in processing visas, the list of those that have been prevented from entering the country is, at best, embarrassing. It includes eminent scholars that have been to the US many times before, including foreign members of the Academies. Large numbers of outstanding students who contribute to both our research enterprise and our economy have also been excluded.

Unfortunately, the data is still inadequate to make an accurate assessment of the impact of the new, stricter visa regulations on the travel of scholars into the US. The head of the consular affairs office at the Department of State has testified before congress that 90% of the cases are being cleared within 30 days.

At the same time, however, the Department of State statistics show that the number of visas issued for all visitors to the United States has dropped from 6.9 million to 4.9 million, since 2001. There is no way to know whether the decline for scientists and engineers is greater or smaller than this approximately 30% overall decline. It's also impossible to know whether the decline is due to discouragement with the process, a feeling that the US may not be the free, open society that we have claimed to be, or something else.

The survey conducted by The Association of American Universities (AAU), NAFSA: Association of International Educators, and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) shows that the visa application and granting processes dictated by the government are beginning to have a discernable impact on the number of international students on US campuses and could lead to a significant decline in the decades-long increase in international students and faculty on US campuses.

There is also a host of anecdotal evidence of other unintended side effects of the current policy that may be damaging the US innovation system. At least some international research conferences, for example, are being shifted to sites in other countries because of the perceived hassle of the present visa system.

Specifically, for example, the International Astronomical Union and the International Union for Pure and Applied Physics are concerned enough about the problem to recommend that their meetings not be held in the United States. Similarly, there is fear that future major international instrumentation will not be sited in the US because they will become inaccessible to foreign researchers.

Certainly some existing collaborations between US and foreign researchers have been strained. Alas, we have no data on the extent of these problems.

At least some of the problem arises as much from implementation as from policy. If a consular officer grants a visa to an individual who later commits a terrorist act, that officer may be subject to department review and serious disciplinary action. There are no offsetting incentives to facilitate scientific or technical exchanges.

Thus, there is a strong incentive for the consular officer to be conservative even though that might not maximize the national interest. Compound this with the fact that the State Department has not been given adequate resources to meet the increased workload, so the treatment of applicants is sometimes given short shrift.

Finally, there is also considerable evidence that the implementation of policy is not consistent around the world. Some embassies, for example, hold passports while the process is being adjudicated, making it impossible for that person to leave the country until the process is complete

To help with difficult cases, the National Academies have created an International Visitors Office (IVO). The cases monitored by the IVO show a similar trend to that reported by the AAU et. al.

Overall, our sense is that the process of getting a visa has improved slightly, and that those people with sufficient time and patience will eventually prevail in obtaining a visa. The IVO is seeing more and more long-term cases getting cleared each week as the communication between agencies, such as State and the FBI, improves. Nonetheless, the average time to clear these "difficult" cases is more like 6 months than 30 days.

Some improvements in the system are worth mentioning, especially the State Department decision on 7 October 2003 that allows security checks to be good for one year. In other words, those who have successfully gone through a "Visas Mantis" security check (the process by which the government reviews visa applicants whose work or studies involve sensitive technologies) may now leave the country and return without undergoing a new Mantis review for a period of one year.

Another positive trend is the willingness of government officials to begin to work with the National Academies on a system that will recognize foreign scientists who are participating in international, government-sponsored research collaborations and provide these scientists with long-term, multiple-entry visas. These discussions are just beginning and but we are pleased with the positive reactions we have received so far.

Despite these potential improvements, however, we need to recognize that damage to the US reputation as an open and welcoming country may have been done. We also need to recognize that the visa situation is not occurring in a vacuum. Together, the visa policies and implementation, the USA Patriot Act, the SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) program, etc., are projecting a collective image that is not inviting.

Recent testimony at hearings sponsored by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee indicated that restrictive visa policies are taking a severe toll on the tourist industry. Witnesses spoke about the image of "fortress America." The hassle of showing up in person for a cursory interview (in Beijing, five overworked consular officers conduct 700 interviews per day!), being subjected to fingerprinting, and paying a nonrefundable application fee of $100 causes many people to conclude that coming to the United States is simply not worth it-even if we can reasonably assure success once the application is in the works.

The goal should be to maximize our national security! The only way to do that is with a sensible policy balance that keeps out those that would do us harm while admitting those that will enhance our security. We haven't achieved that balance yet. It is urgent that we do so. At risk is our country's leadership in education and research in science and technology. Also at risk is our economy and national security.

William Wulf is the president of the National Academy of Engineering, and vice chair of the National Research Council.

1. The National Academy of Sciences, The National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine.
2. Balancing Openness and Secrecy at the US Weapons Laboratories, November 19, 1999
3. Science and Security in an Age of Terrorism, October 18, 2002.
4. Current Visa Restrictions Interfere with US Science and Engineering Contributions to Important National Needs, December 13, 2002.

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