Science and Academic Groups Raise New Concerns about Visa Vetting Plan

Proposed Rule Lacks Detail, Needs Revision to Avert Weakening U.S. Innovation

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Arrivals halls at the nation’s international airports such as this one at Logan International Airport in Boston are gateways for more than a million international students each year and teams of research scientists eager to contribute to scientific advancement and U.S. competitiveness. | hildgrim/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Dozens of scientific and academic groups are raising concerns and urging the State Department to provide additional details about a proposed rule that would subject tens of thousands of visa applicants deemed to warrant more stringent scrutiny to additional vetting procedures.

In a May 18 letter to the State Department and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, the organizations cautioned that the rule would blunt scientific and academic collaborations, discourage foreign students from seeking to study and participate in research projects in the United States, prompt “existing and potential partners and students” to choose to engage with other countries and damage U.S. competitiveness.

“The notice, as proposed, is likely to have a chilling effect not only on those required to submit additional information, but indirectly on all international travelers to the United States,” the letter said.  “The uncertainties and confusion regarding supplemental questions will have a negative impact particularly on U.S. higher education and scientific collaborations.”

Scientific collaborations, including research and academic exchanges, conferences and meetings put on by professional academic and scientific societies are vital to the nation’s academic institutions, innovation and economic growth, the letter said.

“More than one million international students attending U.S. colleges and universities during the 2015-2016 academic year supported 400,000 U.S. jobs and contributed $32.8 billion to the U.S. economy,” the letter said, citing data from NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a letter signatory. “These international undergraduate and graduate students and scholars contribute to the intellectual richness of our universities and serve as goodwill ambassadors in their home countries when they return.”

Citing a 2012 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the letter said the United States hosted almost 1.8 million meetings of all kinds in 2009 involving “an estimated 205 million participants and generated more than $263 billion in direct spending and $907 billion in total industry output.”

The proposal was made public on May 4 in a Federal Register notice under the OMB emergency review procedures that expedite the rulemaking process.

One provision in the visa proposal that has drawn wide criticism would require covered visa applicants to report five years of their social media activities, including the handles used over the period. “Social media information is of particular concern given the fluid nature of online engagement, the lack of specificity in this notice, and the potential impact on applicants for inadvertent failure to disclose information,” the letter said.

The proposed regulation also would require select visa applicants to report 15 years of biographical information, including employment history, addresses, prior passport numbers, information about family members from siblings and children to current and former spouses and partners as well as their travel histories including how trips were funded over the period. Visa applicants also would be required to provide the phone numbers and email addresses they used over the previous five years.

The State Department estimated in the Federal Register notice that it would impact 65,000 visa applicants, or 0.5% of foreign travelers seeking entry into the United States.

The lack of detail about the criteria to be used in selecting which visa applicants would be subject to enhanced screening was particularly troublesome to the scientific and academic groups. The proposal appears to give U.S. consular officers wide latitude in determining which applicants warrant the enhanced screening.

Without sufficient detail the proposal is likely to lead to long delays in processing visa requests that would be “particularly harmful” to students and researchers facing strict timeframes or enrollment deadlines, the letter said. The letter also raised questions about how the additional information would be stored and what privacy protections would be put in place.

“The attendance of international scientists at U.S. meetings and conferences is important in terms of the intellectual content they contribute, for the benefit to the United States from the formation and sustainment of partnerships with U.S. counterparts, and in terms of benefits to the U.S. economy,” the letter said.

Should the visa plan proceed, the groups called on the administration to expand resources at U.S. consulates to manage such a fundamental change, and said the proposal should be subject to regular rulemaking procedures and not the proposed emergency review that limits consideration and public input.

[Associated image: Steve Sapp/Flickr (United States Government Work)]