APS News

Better Visa Policy for Scientists

By Calla Cofield

At the APS March Meeting, the Society’s Forum on International Physics hosted a session titled “Visa Policies for the 21st Century.” In a first, a representative of the U.S. State Department’s Visa Office spoke at the Meeting and answered questions from the audience. Kathie Bailey, director of the Board on International Scientific Organizations of the National Academy of Science (NAS), spoke about the Academy’s effort to assist visa applicants who are experiencing delays with their application. Al Teich, former Director of Science Policy and Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science for 30 years, and now a professor at George Washington University, spoke about legislation that would help foreign scientists and students coming to the U.S.

“This session was not another rehashing of the horror stories of who has had a visa problem,” said the session chair Amy Flatten, Director of International Affairs at APS, in an interview after the session. “We wanted this session to be about solutions. This discussion was focused on the things we can do moving forward.”

Matthew Gillen, the State Department’s chief of the Bureau of the Consular Affairs’ Visa Offices Coordination and Screening Division, opened his presentation by asking how many of the 30 or so audience members were born outside the United States. Nearly every attendee raised his or her hand. He then invited the audience members to shout out questions during his talk, stating, “I want to make this very interactive.”

Many of the audience members asked specific questions about their own visa situations.

Gillen answered many of these, but also emphasized that visa holders should visit the foreign office at their institution with further questions. He said that the amount of misinformation that circulates by word of mouth is a big problem. Many of the questions posed by audience members were with phrases like “I heard that...” or “A friend told me…” to which Gillen replied “Stop listening to your friends. Go ask an expert.”

Gillen’s presence at the Meeting may be a sign of the increased transparency from the State Department’s visa office, compared to past decades. Gillen outlined ways that the State Department has improved communication with visa applicants, and how it has worked to recover from the major delays that occurred in the four years immediately following 9/11. According to Flatten, wait times for visa processing at any consular office in the world can be found at http://travel.state.gov. Bailey’s advice: “Apply early,” at least three or four months prior to travel.

The second key resource cited by Flatten is the International Visitors Office (IVO) website which is part of the National Academies. The website features a questionnaire for scientists whose visa applications are delayed beyond the standard time window, or who are 14 days from an event and do not yet have a visa. Information from the questionnaire will be reported by NAS to the state department. In one instance, the IVO discovered that multiple delays were taking place at one particular embassy, and alerted the State Department to that finding.

Much of the audience was dealing with visa problems rooted in legislation. Examples of legislation changes that could assist people working in the STEM fields were addressed by Al Teich, who has a long list of suggestions of how to improve visa policy to benefit people in STEM fields. (See Teich’s article in the March issue of APS News for more details).

Many challenges remain for scientists and students in the STEM fields when it comes to gaining entry to the U.S. for school, work, meetings or collaborations. Flatten says she was pleased with the State Department Visa Office’s presence at the session, noting that “not only did they speak to our scientists, I think more importantly they heard from our scientists.”





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