Several key members of the House Science Committee have asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) for an update on efforts to improve the visa processing system for foreign scientists and students. In February, the GAO published a report which identified delays and inefficiencies in the process, and made recommendations to the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, and FBI for how the process could be improved. (The report, GAO-04-371, can be found at www.gao.gov; see also FYI #24.) On June 16, Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN), and Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) sent a letter to Comptroller General David Walker, requesting a follow-up report to assess the progress toward implementing these recommendations.
"I believe we were right to enhance our security measures in the wake of the September 11 attacks," said Boehlert, according to a Science Committee press release. "But we cannot allow security to be an excuse for inefficiency - especially when these inefficiencies are needlessly discouraging the world's best current and future scientists from coming to the U.S.... The purpose of this follow-up investigation is to examine progress toward the implementation of these [GAO] recommendations and other efforts to streamline the visa process."
The relevant text of the letter follows:
"Dear Comptroller General Walker:
"We greatly appreciate the testimony and the report provided by the GAO to the Committee on Science on the length of time necessary to adjudicate visas for science students and scholars, and we are writing to request a follow-up investigation on executive actions taken to further improve the Visas Mantis process [a security check intended to protect against transfer of sensitive technologies].
"As you will recall, witnesses at a 2003 Science Committee hearing raised concerns about losing the world's best current and future scientists to other countries due to lengthy delays in the visa processing system. At our request, you surveyed the problem, identified system weaknesses, examined measures under way to strengthen the process and decrease the number of pending cases, and made recommendations to eliminate processing inefficiencies and improve processing times in your report, entitled "Improvements Needed to Reduce Time Taken to Adjudicate Visas for Science Students and Scholars" (GAO-04-371).
"At a February 25, 2004 Science Committee hearing, officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were given the opportunity to respond to the GAO's findings, and they were specifically asked to develop a plan to implement the GAO's recommendations to improve the processing of visa applications referred for additional security review. To that end, we believe it would now be helpful to the Committee and our oversight agenda for GAO to conduct a follow-up assessment of the Visas Mantis process.
"The investigation should examine 1) progress toward the implementation of the GAO recommendations, including the creation of milestones to reduce the number of pending Visas Mantis cases, the creation of performance goals and measurements for processing Visas Mantis checks, the provision of additional information to consular posts on the Visas Mantis program, and the implementation of interoperable systems to expedite transmission of data between agencies; 2) the length of time to adjudicate a visa that requires a Visas Mantis check; 3) the impact of actions taken since February 2004 to expedite the Visas Mantis Process; and, 4) the impact of new visa policies or procedures concerning applicants who will engage in research or studies involving potentially sensitive technologies.
"In carrying-out your investigation, we ask that you make a particular effort to examine the processing of foreign scientists and scholars from the former Soviet Union. As you know, this has been a particular interest of Congressman Weldon, but it concerns us all. Specifically, we request that you consider 1) the time it takes for applicants from the former Soviet Union who are participating in U.S. government programs and initiatives to obtain visas; and, 2) the steps taken by posts and relevant federal agencies to expedite the visa adjudication process for priority applicants."
The committee members ask for "an interim response to these inquiries no later than September 2004."