As reported in FYI #56, John Marburger, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, discussed the visa problems facing foreign scientists and students at the recent Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy held by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. While he could have addressed many issues of science policy, he said, "I decided to narrow my remarks this morning to a single important issue affecting the science and higher education communities. The issue is the ability of foreign technical personnel, including students and scientists, to visit the United States for meetings, research collaborations, or educational pursuits." Marburger said little about the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) process or about the not-yet-finalized Interagency Panel on Advanced Science and Security (IPASS) process to "identify sensitive courses of study" and "identify problematic applicants for student visas."
Selected excerpts from his April 10 speech follow. Interested readers can find the full text in pdf format at http://www.ostp.gov/html/jhmAAASvisas.pdf:
VALUE OF FOREIGN SCIENTISTS, STUDENTS:
"Let me begin by stating clearly that this Administration values the contribution foreign scientists and students make to the nation's scientific enterprise, to our economy, and to the appreciation of American values throughout the world. We want to make it possible for any visitor who does not mean us harm to come and go across United States borders without significant inconvenience or delay.... My aim is to characterize the visa system as it applies to students and scientists, and describe what is being done to make it work better."
VISA APPLICATION STATISTICS:
"First let me give you some numbers. For the past four years, the annual number of nonimmigrant visa applications has varied between 8 and 10 million, of which about 75% are granted.... Of those admitted, approximately 20% are in the F, M, and J categories in which students and exchange visitors fall.... By this August all international students must be registered through SEVIS. National Laboratories and other institutions also use SEVIS to enter and track foreign visitor information.... The system has experienced well-publicized glitches. DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] has hired experts to identify and resolve issues, and is monitoring and correcting problems..."
"The visa process begins at the consular office in the country of origin.... Consular officers judge each application on its merits in accordance with existing immigration laws and procedures.... The first opportunity for rejection comes at this stage, and the most common cause by far is ‘failure to establish intent to return to the home country'.... The next largest cause of rejection at the consular stage seems to be ‘application does not comply with INA requirements'.... I have personally reviewed detailed statistics for rates of acceptance and rejection over the past five years in various visa categories from various countries, and find a small but significant decrease in acceptance rates over all categories. Changes in student and scientist rates do not appear to differ from those of other categories."
DELAYS IN PROCESSING:
"So where is the problem? Unfortunately, while rejection rates for science- or study-related activities remain small, the number of cases submitted for additional review has increased dramatically since 9/11. This increase, plus more careful scrutiny of the submitted cases, has led to processing backlogs that have created excessive delays in notification. Solutions focus on removing these backlogs and changing the way cases are processed, without sacrificing the rigor of the review."
"Three different review procedures dominate the process for the classes of visas we are considering. First, all applications are checked with the Consular Lookout Automated Support System (CLASS). This system compares names with lists from the FBI's National Criminal Information Center, and the intelligence community's TIPOFF data base on terrorists, etc."
"The other two reviews are conducted only when the consular official judges that the application meets special criteria. One of these, code-named MANTIS, was established...to exclude applicants whom a consular official or, since March 1, the Secretary of Homeland Security, has reasonable grounds to believe intends to violate or evade laws governing the export of goods, technology, or sensitive information. The decision to submit an application for MANTIS review is based on guidance accompanying a Technology Alert List compiled by State Department Officials with input from other federal agencies. The other federal agencies also assist in evaluating the cases. ... The statistics tell a story: In calendar year 2000, about 1,000 cases were reviewed under MANTIS, and 2,500 the following year. In 2002 the figure jumped to 14,000, overloading the system last summer and fall. Today the State Department estimates that at any given time there are about 1,000 visa applications in the MANTIS review process. FBI and State are dedicating fulltime individuals to clean up the backlog.
"The second special review, code-named CONDOR, is entirely new since 9/11 and is devoted to identifying potential terrorists. In both systems, the flood of new case submittals following 9/11 required changes in methodology to maintain the quality of the reviews. In the past, if the State Department received no derogatory information from the supporting agencies in 30 days, it was assumed there was no objection to the visa issuance. But in the summer of 2002, the backlog was such that no agency could give assurance that 30 days was enough, and the 30 day rule was suspended. State must now wait for affirmative replies from participating agencies before it informs consular officers that there is no objection to issuance."
"We think we understand what is happening, where the problems are, and how they can be addressed," Marburger concluded. He encouraged "a better knowledge among all parties regarding how the visa system works, and what are its objectives. Very few applicants are terrorists, and therefore a properly working system will not reject large numbers on grounds related to terrorism.... Most of the current delays and backlogs are related to our efforts to screen applicants more rigorously, and not as the result of policies to exclude.... Students and visiting scientists need to get accurate information from their institutions and collaborators about how and when to apply for visas. We can all help make the system work better." He called for "a frame of mind within the technical and higher education communities that perhaps falls short of patience, but rises above hysteria.... If the devil is in the details, then so is the opportunity for good will to produce a favorable outcome."