AAAS and Allied Science Groups See Dramatic Improvement in U.S. Visa System
Nearly a year after they urged broad reform in the U.S. visa system, AAAS and allied organizations say the federal government has dramatically reduced the obstacles faced by foreign students and scholars who want to study or work here.
The U.S. visa system emerged as a critical issue for science, engineering and higher education officials in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, when stringent new security measures were imposed. While they may have improved security, the measures created backlogs and bottlenecks that discouraged foreign students and scholars and frustrated the U.S. research and higher education community.
But change is underway. Applicants subject to special Visas Mantis security reviews had to wait more than two months on average in the spring of 2003 to learn of the results, but that now has been reduced to about two weeks. Students and scholars are being allowed to stay longer without renewing their visas. New visa-processing staffers have been hired by the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security. Technology has been upgraded, as has the State Department's Web site on visas.
"The State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies involved in the visa system have made great progress in clearing up what had become a quagmire," said Albert H. Teich, the head of Science and Policy at AAAS. "While there is still work to be done, we believe the improvements made so far will have substantial benefits not only for U.S. research interests, but for the economy and foreign relations as well."
A spokeswoman for Maura Harty, the assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, said the changes mesh with the "Secure Borders, Open Doors" philosophy advanced by the administration of President George W. Bush.
"We have aggressively refined our processes and procedures to enhance the transparency, efficiency and predictability of the visa application process," said spokeswoman Angela Aggeler. "We have also consulted closely with the academic community over the past three years to take their concerns into account and solicit suggestions on how we can improve the visa process without compromising national security."
Both at the State Department and in the U.S. research community, the hope is that the recent adjustments and other changes now under consideration will signal to foreign students and scholars that they are welcome in the United States. But some studies show that the number of foreign applications to U.S. schools remains suppressedand that increased competition from schools outside the United States may slow the rebound.
Billions of dollars, and countless innovations in science, engineering, medicine and other fields, are at stake.
The most dramatic changes in U.S. policy have come since AAAS, the Association of American Universities, the National Academies, and some 20 other science, higher-education and engineering groupsrepresenting some 95 percent of the U.S. research communityurged federal officials to reform the visa system.
Their statement, released on 12 May 2004, and subsequently endorsed by nine other organizations, warned of potentially "irreparable" damage to education, science, security and the economy in the United States.
"We strongly support the federal government's efforts to establish new visa policies and procedures to bolster security,"the statement said. But, it added: "We are deeply concerned that this has led to a number of unintended consequences….The United States cannot hope to maintain its present scientific and economic leadership position if it becomes isolated from the rest of the world."
While federal officials were already working on visa problems, the statement had the effect of focusing energy on the problem, Teich and others said. "The statement allowed the federal government to understand what we perceived to be the problems," said Matt Owens, the AAU's senior federal relations officer. "And government officials have told us they used it as a guide to what improvements needed to be considered."
For example, a report accompanying the DHS appropriations bill in the U.S. House of Representatives last June acknowledged the recommendations by the science and research group. And it asked that State and DHS report back by 1 June 2005 on whether the recommendations could be implemented "in an expedited manner."
A few days before that request was made, the Department of State had sent an action plan to the Department of Homeland Security. It focused on the Visas Mantis program, which was established in 1998 to help stop illegal technology transfers.
Under Visas Mantis, the small percentage of visa applicants who want to work or study in sensitive scientific and technical fields is subject to a special security review. Slightly over 70 percent of Visas Mantis reviews are conducted on applicants from China, Russia and Ukraine.
According to an 18 February 2005 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office released at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 2003 it took an average of 67 days for the reviews to be completed.
Meanwhile, those delays and other factors arising from 9/11 were having an impact on foreign students and researchers and on U.S. universities. According to a survey conducted by AAU in the fall of 2003, 621 international students missed their academic start dates because of visa problemsnearly 75 percent of them in physical and biological sciences or engineering. Further, foreign students and scholars lost fellowship support, suffered research delays and missed conferences or meetings.
Many students instead sought education in another country. International enrollment in U.S. universities fell by 2.4 percent in 2003-4, to a total of 572,509 students, the Institute of International Education reported last November. The Council of Graduate Schools reported last November that international graduate student enrollment had fallen by 6 percent in 2004the third consecutive annual decline after a decade of steady increases.
A number of the changes initiated by State and DHS track recommendations made by AAAS, AAU and their partners.
According the GAO report, investments in staff, training and technology in the Visas Mantis program helped bring the waiting time to 15 days as of last November; Aggeler says it is now below 14 days. In addition, the State Department has extended the clearance for foreign students to four years, while researchers and faculty members will be cleared to stay for two years. Both had been required to renew their visas annually.
Many universities have also sought to improve their own processing of foreign student applications.
The impact of these recent changes has yet to be felt, however. The Council of Graduate Schools reported on 9 March that foreign student applications to U.S. graduate schools fell 5 percent in the past year, following a 28 percent drop reported the year before.
"We are encouraged by the steps taken by U.S. graduate schools and the Departments of Homeland Security and State, but continued declines in applications suggest competition abroad is on the rise," Council President Debra W. Stewart said last month. In fact, while applications are falling in the U.S., more applicants are seeking admission to school in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Countries such as China and South Korea also are investing in efforts to attract students to their schools.
AAAS and its partners have discussed other recommendations with federal officials. For example, they have encouraged the State Department to continue negotiations with Russia and China toward reciprocal agreements that would make visa policies more liberal. The partners also have discussed what might be done to resolve errors in visa data more efficiently and ways to allow more foreign students and scholars to revalidate their visas without having to leave the United States.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) has introduced legislation that addresses many concerns raised by the science and education community. American Competitiveness Through International Openness Now (ACTION) Act (S. 455). The ACTION Act seeks to achieve further efficiency in visa processing. It also would remove the requirement that students and scholars establish their intent to return to their home country, a point that can be difficult to prove for those who may not have bank accounts or own property in their home country. In addition, it would improve the process for correcting errors in the foreign student database kept by the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS); deportations based on SEVIS errors would be prohibited.
Harty, the assistant secretary of state, regularly speaks to student audiences overseas and urges them to study in the United States. Aggeler, her spokeswoman, said that federal officials want to "work with the academic community to counter lingering misperceptions about the visa process."
With discussions continuing, Teich said, more progress is possible in the weeks ahead. "Obviously, many people have put a lot of work into this issue, and we're hopeful that it will pay dividends," he said. "We are gratified by the productive collaboration with federal officials and our partners in the research and higher education community."
Edward W. Lempinen
5 April 2005