In May, the APS joined more than 20 other science, higher education and engineering organizations in a joint statement urging the federal government to adopt six practical recommendations for improving the current visa processing crisis by removing unnecessary barriers to multi-national collaborations. Taken together, the group represents 95% of the US research community. It is the first time that US science and academic leaders have endorsed a comprehensive plan to address the visa-processing quagmire in the wake of heightened security concerns following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The statement is careful to express strong support for the US government's efforts to establish new visa policies while bolstering national security. "We are confident that it is possible to have a visa system that is timely and transparent, that provides for thorough reviews of visa applicants, and that still welcomes the brightest minds in the world," the statement reads. "It is not a question of balancing science and security... . These priorities are not mutually exclusive; to the contrary, they complement each other, and each is vital to the other."
There is ample evidence that the visa processing system is sinking under the weight of stricter security requirements. In 2000, only 1000 non-immigrant visa applications were flagged for review under the Visa Mantis program, one of several US screening systems. But by 2002, that number had jumped to 14,000. And by the spring of 2003, some 1000 cases were under review at any given time. An increasing number of cases are being set aside for even more detailed screening. The result is massive backlogs and delays that prevent students from attending university and scientists from participating in research and conferences.
In addition, a survey earlier this year by the American Council of Education, among other organizations, found a substantial drop in applications by international graduate students to leading US research institutions for the 2004-2005 academic year. "If action is not taken soon to improve the visa system, the misperception that the US does not welcome international students, scholars and scientists will grow, and they may not make our nation their destination of choice now and in the future," the statement says. "The US cannot hope to maintain its present scientific and economic leadership position if it becomes isolated from the rest of the world."
Six major problems are outlined in the statement—including delays arising from repetitive security checks, an inefficient visa renewal process, and repetitive processing of visa applications—along with specific recommendations to address those issues.
For example, the proposed Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) could pose a potential new impediment to international students, scholars and scientists entering the US if its fee collection mechanism is not efficient.
The recommendation is that the US arrange for several options for quick, safe and secure payment of fees, including allowing an individual to pay fees after arriving in the US.
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Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette