The problems and delays in the tracking of foreign students and the processing of visa applications for students and visiting scientists have been addressed in several hearings recently, and in an April 10 keynote address by OSTP Director John Marburger at the annual S&T Policy Colloquium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"The current situation is untenable," declared Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) at one of a series of House Science Committee hearings exploring how the war on terrorism is affecting the nation's science enterprise. The backlogs in the visa system, he said at the March 26 hearing, are "unnecessarily impeding the flow of foreign students and scholars" who are "a vital source of new ideas and perspectives." A State Department official explained that the delays are due to stricter reviews, agencies' response time, a greater caseload, and insufficient infrastructure to handle the additional cases. She reported that the relevant agencies recognize the problem and are taking measures to decrease the delays, but she "didn't see a return to the rapid processing we enjoyed" before the September 11 attacks. Many committee members concurred with the comment by Ranking Minority Member Ralph Hall (D-TX) that more American-born students should be "enticed...to pursue science and engineering careers," to "reduce the need to attract such a high percentage of foreign students." College and university officials voiced support for stricter visa procedures, but added that it was important for the U.S. to continue to "remain the destination of choice" for the world's best students and scholars.
A week later, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims heard university witnesses testify about difficulties with the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) program to track foreign students studying in this country. They described technical glitches with entering and viewing data, insufficient training on the part of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) personnel, and the potential for greater problems with an increase in data volume as all foreign students currently in the U.S. are required to be registered by August 1. The Justice Department's Inspector General reported that while the INS has made "significant progress" in improving the system, it is "not yet fully implemented." He stated that more resources are needed for training, contractor oversight, and to address the technical problems.
At the AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy, OSTP Director Marburger focused on the issue of visa delays. "Most of the current delays and backlogs are related to our efforts to screen applicants more rigorously," he explained, "and not as the result of policies to exclude." Marburger said he has reviewed the rates of acceptance and rejection for visas in recent years and found "a small but significant decrease in acceptance rates over all categories," with rates for scientists and students comparable to those for other populations. He indicated that the main problem is delays resulting from more cases being submitted for additional reviews, and "more careful scrutiny" during those reviews. He concluded by stating that the problems are understood, and agencies are working to correct them. Selected excerpts from his speech will be provided in FYI #57, and the full text is available in pdf format at http://www.ostp.gov/html/jhmAAASvisas.pdf .