Legislation Introduced to Reform Visa Application Process

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Publication date: 
11 April 2005

"While the State Department has made some very important strides...there are still too many qualified students unable to get visas to study in America, and too many who today are deterred from even applying." - Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN)

Open scientific exchange and the flow of international students, scholars and scientists to the U.S. to study, collaborate in research, and form relationships "serves vital and longstanding national foreign policy, educational, and economic interests" of the U.S., and enables the U.S. "to benefit from the knowledge of the world's top students and scientists." Those are among the findings of a new bill, introduced by Senators Norm Coleman (R-MN) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), to reform the visa application process and enhance the access of "foreign students, scholars, scientists, and exchange visitors to the United States for study and exchange activities." It would also remove the current burden of proof on students to demonstrate that they plan to return to their home country at the end of their stay, and instead require that they show the intent and ability to "complete a course of study" while in the U.S. The bill, S. 455, was introduced on February 17 and is entitled the "American Competitiveness Through International Openness Now," or "ACTION," Act of 2005

"The National Science Foundation has found that the combination of an overly restrictive U.S. policy towards issuing visas, the growing perception that the United States is hostile to foreigners, and the increase in opportunities overseas has significantly challenged our ability to attract the best and brightest from around the world to come to the U.S. to study and engage in open scientific exchange," explained co-sponsor Bingaman in introducing the bill. "The ACTION Act of 2005 would help keep international students and scientists coming to the United States to participate in essential research and exchange programs by: improving visa processing in a manner consistent with national security; requiring the President to develop a strategic plan to enhance the recruitment and access of students, scholars, and scientists coming to the United States; reforming the SEVIS [Student and Exchange Visitor Information] system, which tracks students, to allow approved schools to make corrections to a student's record to correct database errors; and by facilitating that the FBI and the State Department develop interoperable data systems."

One of the science community's continuing concerns regarding immigration law is Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which requires that students applying for a visa must prove their intent to return to their home country at the end of their stay in the U.S. This requirement often raises difficulties for students, who may not have a residence, dependents, a bank account or other strong ties to their country of origin as indication of their intent to return. The ACTION bill would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to require that a student instead demonstrate that he or she has "the intention, capability, and sufficient financial resources to complete a course of study in the United States."

According to Coleman, "The bill calls for more realistic standards for visa evaluations by updating a 50-year old criterion for visa approval and admittance to the United States. Under the so-called 214(b) rule, young people currently need to prove that they have ‘essential ties' to their home countries and no intention of emigrating to the U.S. But in this age of globalization, it is increasingly difficult for a 20-year old to do this. Many have lived and studied in other countries, and some have lost their parents to AIDS. They don't own a house or a business, they don't have spouses or children. Consular officers treat every student as an intending immigrant, and it is exceedingly difficult for a student to prove otherwise."

Other provisions of the bill include the following: Improved coordination and division of responsibility among the relevant federal departments; a marketing plan to promote study in the U.S.; streamlined procedures for visa processing and international scientific collaboration; negotiation of reciprocity agreements with other countries on extending visa validity; reform of fee collection and database management for the SEVIS program; an annual report to Congress on the number of student and scholar visa applications, approvals, denials, reasons for denials and average processing time; expedited processing and a special review process for visa security checks still pending after a certain period of time; and improved guidance to consular officers. The bill would "authorize to be appropriated such sums as may be necessary to carry out this Act."

"We have often seen that prejudice is bred by isolation," Coleman stated. "Especially in a time when we are burdened with the question, ‘Why do they hate us?' we need to enhance those opportunities for people to see us as we really are. International exchanges present precisely this opportunity.... If we can take ACTION to reverse the decline now, all Americans will reap the benefits for decades to come."

Bingaman added, "A country's immigration system helps determine its relationship to the global marketplace. The system can either be conducive to the free flow of ideas, scientists, and international business ventures, or it can provide disincentives to the flow of international talent and scientific collaboration.... Openness to international students and scientist is an important aspect of maintaining American competitiveness in the world economy, and I ask my fellow colleagues to join me in supporting this essential bill."

The full text of S. 455 can be found on THOMAS at http://thomas.loc.gov/. The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, but no further action has been taken on it, and no additional senators have signed on as co-sponsors.