AAAS, Other Groups Recommend Inter-agency Panel to Expedite Visa Application Decisions

A coalition of 31 science and higher education organizations led by AAAS on 10 June urged the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to take a series of steps that could lead to quicker and more reliable processing of visas for visiting scientists, engineers and scholars.

The groups, including the Association of American Universities(AAU) and the National Academies, called for creation of an inter-agency panel to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of visa-related policies and procedures that were put into place after the terror attacks of 11 September 2001 and designed to enhance national security.

The statement also recommends expediting the current backlog of visa applications and streamlining the visa process for graduate students, researchers and other science and technology professionals seeking short-term U.S. visits. For short-term visits—such as for scientific and academic conferences—visa applicants should receive an answer within 30 days of applying, the statement advises.

"The time is ripe for a comprehensive high-level review of the cost-effectiveness of existing visa policies and procedures for science and engineering students and exchange visitors," said Albert H. Teich, director of Science and Policy Programs at AAAS.

With the Association of American Universities and the National Academies, Teich helped write the 10 June document "Statement and Recommendations on Visa Problems Harming America's Scientific, Economic, and Security Interests." The statement was sent to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. State Department, and other federal agencies.

The statement was a response to the government's recent efforts to address visa delays. While the coalition expressed gratitude for the government's recent commitment to improved procedures, it said further steps must be taken to assure that visa problems do not inhibit the smooth functioning of the global science and scholarly enterprise—and to ensure that foreign researchers and scholars are not further alienated by a visa system that has been widely criticized in the U.S. and overseas.

"Our colleges and universities provide much of the new knowledge and training that advance the innovation that can restore America's prosperity," said AAU President Robert M. Berdahl. "Critical to our ability to play this role has been the attractiveness of our institutions and our country to international scientists and students. It is essential that we eliminate visa policies and procedures that undermine the desire of international scholars to come to our country to learn, to teach, and to conduct research."

International scientists have had to wait two to three months to obtain U.S. visas that allow them to work, study or attend scientific conferences in the United States. "[The delays] compromise our ability to attract international scientific talent and maintain scientific and economic leadership," the groups wrote in their joint statement. Scientists will be disinclined to come to the United States if the delays continue, wrote the group.

Recently the State Department initiated efforts to catch up on the backlog of visa requests, according to a report in the New York Times. The State Department is unsure when it will be caught up on the requests, but said that it aims to eventually have a two-week turnaround for routine applications. Extra staff and a revised procedure for reviewing visa applications are intended to expedite these routine visa requests.

"The proof, of course, will be in the pudding, once we actually start seeing the backlog shrink and the process speeding up," Teich said. However, he added: "The moves that State is currently implementing will not solve all of the problems with the visa system."

Still, the joint statement expressed gratitude to the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security for the recent steps to alleviate delays. "All of us in the science community are pleased to see that the federal government is taking steps to address our concerns," Teich said. "We hope to see significant progress in the coming weeks and months, and we hope that federal officials will continue to work with us to improve the visa process further."